Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2012

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.

Regeneration: War Books [7/15]

So, I’m back to war! I actually finished this book just before starting Ulysses but didn’t get around to writing about it until now – I’m currently finding my opinions of Ulysses too difficult to summarise! Regeneration is a fantastic book and I’ll definitely read the rest of the trilogy when I allow myself to buy some more books. Surprisingly, a lot of the same people from Goodbye To All That  appeared as characters in this book which was a nice link – Graves himself, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen being a few.

The story revolves around Sassoon and his decisions to write his Soldier’s Declaration, which was a kind of open letter that stated why he didn’t want to fight in the war anymore. Sassoon didn’t object to soldiering in principle, but he disagreed with what he saw as the prolonging of war and needless sacrifice of young lives. He is sent to a military hospital called Craiglockhart (which was a real hospital) specialising in healing soldiers with mental traumas like shell shock, loss of speech, and psychological distress. It raised lots of interesting questions about what a ‘normal’ reaction to the horrors of war would be, and why some soldiers couldn’t carry on when others did. It was moving to read about how much the survivors were suffering, but they were only being recuperated so they could be sent back to die.

I enjoyed the mix of historical fact and fiction and liked the emphasis Barker placed on war as a psychologically damaging experience, which is something Louisa Young did with My Dear I Wanted To Tell You. Is healing more of a modern preoccupation? The books I have read recently that have been published in the last twenty years or so have tried to continue the story past the end of the war, which I have found fascinating.

I bought this book from a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, and when I picked it up to start reading I found an old photograph inside. If finds like this aren’t a good reason to buy second-hand books, I don’t know what are. I’m slightly obsessed with wanting to find out when the photo was taken, and who the boy is, who left it in the book and why.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You: War Books [6/15]

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You really exceeded my expectations. It starts with a couple of love stories, some mediocre trench warfare but ends up being all about healing – soldiers’ minds and families as well as wounds. It is easy to be skeptical about modern books written about WWI because in some ways, although there are thousands of individual stories that could be told, everything has been said already BUT this was quite original.

The title is taken from the field card soldiers used to get, (I’ve never heard of these before) that look like the cover of the book – with blanks for names, dates and injuries. Another bit of trivia I learnt from this book was that when people were enlisting at the beginning of the war, they were given a choice between joining either for a year or for the duration of the war. So anyone listening to the ‘It’ll be over by Christmas’ propaganda would be getting much more than they were bargaining for.

Here’s why this book is great:

  • The book follows two couples: young love across social classes and a married couple just starting a family. The best parts of this book are those that describe how the relationships adjust after the men return from war.
  • The inability of some women to understand what their husbands had gone through was spot on.
  • Ditto the descriptions of women’s war work and nursing.
  • Realistic characters, especially the mistakes they made trying to hide their recovery (or need of it) from their families.
  • I learned lots about the plastic surgery offered to wounded soldiers wound, parts of the book were quite gruesome but fascinating at the same time.

Slightly less great:

  • The actual war parts weren’t amazing, the trenches and battles were quite lacklustre, especially in light of some of the other books I’ve read recently.
  • The common problem of historical fiction – getting the language right, at times this seemed far too modern.

Definitely worth a read, especially if you are interested in the VADs and women at home.

Goodbye To All That: War Books [5/15]

I am so pleased to have finally read this book, I loved it, and reading it after All Quiet on the Western Front was perfect timing. Robert Graves’ autobiography is totally gripping and completely different to what I was expecting – Goodbye To All That covers the horrors of war in a really cold, detached way. The opposite of Remarque’s emotional prose, but just as moving. A real testament to how good this autobiography is: even the beginning was interesting. Normally, I’m not a fan of the first few chapters of biographies, but Graves writing made me interested in everything he had to say. His childhood seemed to be a quintessentially English upper class one, although a boys boarding school seemed to be not without its own problems! This was so readable because of the immediacy, his memories are very clear and honest.

Graves spent his army life as an Officer, mostly at the front, until he was wounded. There are the horrible scenes you would come to expect in a truthful account of the trenches but the part that separated this for me was his thoughts about the continuation of the war past 1916.

We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.

What has made this book stand out from the other war books I have read so far, is that the book continues after the war. I suppose because there was a future for Graves, although it wasn’t the one he may have thought about as a young man prior to his army life. I really enjoyed reading about his marriage to Nancy, a feminist quite ahead of her time! His life as a poet also meant he was meeting a lot of writers who we now regard as iconic, like Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. A really sad part towards the end is when Graves mentions losing his son in the Second World War. As his generation becomes the elders, his children suffer the same horrors.

The Stranger’s Child: War Books [4/15]

I had been eagerly anticipating The Stranger’s Child and read it as soon as it came out in paperback. (Love the cover.) I’ve classified it as a war book for this reading project, although it isn’t a war book in the sense that my three previous books are. The story begins just before WWI and jumps forward in time. It is a novel about how history and family stories change over generations, and shows how times changed because of the war.

For the sake of clarity, the story is split up like this:

  • Part One: 1913 The main characters Daphne, George, and Cecil Valance
  • Part Two: 1920s Cecil is a war poet, the family live in a house called Corley
  • Part Three: 1960s/1970s Corley is a boarding school collecting items for a ‘museum’
  • Part Four: 1980s Characters from Part Three research a biography about the Valances
  • Part Five: 2008 Strangers are brought together for a conference/memorial

The first part of the book was definitely my favourite – I can’t get enough of this era at the moment! The way Hollinghurst writes about these grand country houses and bright young people is romanticised without being unreal, like nostalgia about childhood. It was a very atmospheric beginning to the book which would have been worth reading even if the rest of the book had been terrible (which it wasn’t). A frustrating, but unavoidable outcome of this book forever jumping forward in time is that you get really attached to characters who are dead in the next section and unfortunately the characters got less and less like-able down the generations.

I thought the different attitudes to the romantic relationship between Cecil and George were well written: Their relationship is obviously hidden at the time, but later revealed by the biographer. The differing reactions between family members and critics were amusing because everyone seemed to have their own agenda for their opinions, rather than the discovery of truth. An unavoidable aspect of humanity, really!

Reading this like a war book, I suppose the message would be that WWI stopped people in their tracks. The men who survived and the women at home carried on with lives when the war was over, but on a slightly different course. It was very much as though they sidestepped onto a path parallel to where they had gone if the war hadn’t happened. An interesting thought created by this book is that the people who are revered and celebrated for their deeds during the war can only have their stories told by other people. History is singing with lost voices.

All Quiet on the Western Front: War Books [3/15]

Now he is lying there – and for what reason? Everybody in the whole world ought to be made to walk past his bed and be told: ‘This is Franz Kemmerich, he’s nineteen and a half, and he doesn’t want to die! Don’t let him die!

All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that never loses force. Originally I was only going to read war books I hadn’t read before but why leave out the best? I have read this book before and am pleased to report that it is still just as devastating and worthwhile the second time around. I’m quite confident that by the end of this reading project I will still recommend this book as the one to read.

I won’t go into the plot, because I’m sure everyone knows the story: German soldier fighting on the Western front in WWI. The fact that the novel is about German soldiers highlights why we should commemorate all the soldiers who died in the war, not just the ones from our own country. The most important part of the book is that you could be reading about any soldier from either side. This post is heavy on the quotes because Remarque’s writing is somehow both horrific and beautiful, and puts into words what I couldn’t begin to articulate.

Paul Baumer is just about as experienced as you can manage to be for a front line soldier, which makes it easy to forget that he is only nineteen. During the battles he fights instinctively, acts compassionately, appears fearless. It isn’t until after the fighting stops that I remembered how young and destroyed he really is:

The trucks roll monotonously onwards, the shouts are monotonous , the falling rain is monotonous. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead men up at the front of the truck, on the body of the little recruit with a wound that is far too big for his hip, it’s falling on Kemmerich’s grave and it’s falling in our hearts.

That is the quote I remember best from reading this book a few years ago. It completely captures the sheer despair and futility of these soldiers prolonging their lives. Yes, they can survive one battle but in order to face what? Paul and his comrades occasionally talk about what they would do if the war finishes and the answers tend to revolve around satisfying the body; girls, food, alcohol, sleep. Any discussion beyond that is depressing; they are the lost generation and they know it.

We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; We believe in the war.

The absorption of young men’s lives into the war is something I don’t always consider when thinking about war novels. Yes, most of their time is taken up with fighting and whilst they get leave to see their families perhaps this isn’t the relief you might have thought it was. The soldiers think about home with nostalgia – firmly anchored in the past:

The [memories] are silent because that is something incomprehensible to us. There is no silence at the front and the spell of the front is so strong that we are never away from it. […] The quietness is the reason why all these images awaken in us not so much desire as sadness – a vast and inexplicable melancholy. These scenes existed once – but they will never return. They are gone, they are another world, a world that is in the past for us.

Surprisingly some of the most upsetting parts of the novel happen when Paul is at home on leave. The soldiers have an unspoken, unanimous decision to never reveal the reality of what happens at the front to their families. Consequently Paul has to see and do horrible things and never speak of them to anyone who cares about him, which makes for agonising reading. Is it better that his family didn’t know what his life had become? Does morale win wars or prolong them?

Can there ever be a novel that should be required for everyone to read? Are the World Wars a Western concern? Completely simplifying what could be a lengthy argument, my opinion is that war is war and everyone should know what it really costs.

A Farewell to Arms: War Books [2/15]

I picked A Farewell to Arms to follow Birdsong because I thought the two books would be quite different. Hemingway is writing in part from his own experiences as an American soldier in the Italian army who whilst fighting for the same side is likely to have faced different situations from an English soldier in France. There were great differences in the authors’ writing styles. Hemingway is cold and clinical with description whereas Faulks does not shy away from long descriptive passages. I thought both books were very moving, but for different reasons: I knew the characters in Birdsong, I was attached to them, and I was given a lot of sensory detail about their situations. A Farewell to Arms was completely different: The matter of fact way that Hemingway describes events makes reading them feel like you are being punched in the stomach.

What made this book stand out for me against other WWI novels was its portrayal of the relationship between Catherine and Henry. Unlike Stephen and Isabelle in Birdsong, romance was flesh and blood in this soldier’s life and not just a haunting memory. However, I’m struggling to work out what Hemingway means by writing women the way he does. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Catherine was the weak link in A Farewell to Arms and I think I’m inclined to agree. She seems to be slightly unnatural, maybe a bit one-dimensional. What is she really like? I’ve no idea.

The last thing I picked up on when I read A Farewell to Arms was how many soldiers died outside the battlefield. They were shot by superiors, caught the flu, starved, or succumbed to medical complications. Death takes on a completely different meaning during wartime and the grim reality of dying seems to spiral out of control.

What makes this such a worthy war novel is the ending.

DON’T READ THIS LAST BIT IF YOU DON’T LIKE SPOILERS:

Catherine and the baby dying hammers home the message that no good has come of this war. No new life, no regeneration – what has been destroyed by war will always have been destroyed. If Henry had gone on to live a happy life with wife and child the book wouldn’t have been the same at all – you can’t un-see things, you can’t undo war.

Birdsong: War Books [1/15]

The reading project has officially begun: I am reading the WWI books first, and have started with Birdsong  by Sebastian Faulks.

Birdsong  is written with three story lines that intertwine: It begins in 1910 with a love affair, travels underneath the trenches over 1916-1918, and ends with a granddaughter in the 1970s. From reading around, this book seems to be one that divides opinion. However, I loved it and think it is a very accomplished modern story about the war.

I was surprised when the book began with a budding relationship but I think it helped to understand the characters before they were thrown into some very extreme circumstances. Giving an insight into people’s lives before the war helped me to imagine the sort of thing men might have been fighting for and I liked how Faulks included the men’s letters home. What separates this novel from others I have read before was the focus on the tunnels underneath no man’s land. There were miners on the British and German sides tunneling towards each other with mines to plant. Reading these parts of the book was so uncomfortable – Faulks is really good at making you feel completely claustrophobic.

There is a really moving paragraph written about the aftermath of Battle of the Somme:

Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened, he could hear what Weir had meant: it was a low, continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for half a mile or more. As his ear became used to the absence of guns, Stephen could hear it more clearly: it sounded to him as though the earth itself was groaning.

‘Oh God, oh God.’ Weir began to cry. ‘What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it. We’ve done something terrible, we’ll never get back to how it was before.’

The book, like All Quiet on the Western Front, contrasts the fighting on the battlefields with elements of nature like the birds singing. I think this technique is so effective because it highlights war as an aberration in nature. It is these bits that stick in my mind as being particularly sad.

The only part of the book I wasn’t too keen on was the 1970s story. In it, Elizabeth is starting to learn about her family history around wartime. It seemed almost false, because Elizabeth seems to be pretty stupid – I mean, we learned about WWI at school, surely they did in the seventies as well? On the other hand, whilst I know bits about the war and have visited some of the battlefields in France and Belgium, I don’t know as much about what my own great grandparents did. This is something I would like to find out more about.

Next I am moving on to another WWI classic: A Farewell to Arms.

His children are falling from the sky.

I think I may have mentioned this every time I have written about Hilary Mantel or about a book by Hilary Mantel, but I’ll say it again: I LOVE HILARY MANTEL. I have to read all of her books or my life will be ruined. Bring Up the Bodies is about Thomas Cromwell and takes place during the nine months leading up to Anne Boleyn’s death. We all know Anne and Henry don’t live happily ever after tending to their enormous brood of sons so I’ll skip the plot and go straight for one of my favourite bits:

Once he had watched Liz making a silk braid. One end was pinned to the wall and on each finger of her raised hands she was spinning loops of thread, her fingers flying so fast he couldn’t see how it worked. ‘Slow down,’ he said, ‘so I can see how you do it,’ but she’d laughed and said, ‘I can’t slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn’t do it at all.’

This sums up what makes this book so fascinating – Mantel makes a point in Wolf Hall about the world not being run from where you think it is. Everyone is subject to scheming, underhand loyalties and bargaining; the Lords, the court and even the King. Cromwell seems to be right in the midst of it all and things always seem to be going his way, he controls court life with invisible strings. This book makes it seem like a dangerous time to be alive – even your thoughts can cost you your life.

I liked Bring Up the Bodies because it shows such a famous historical event from the perspective of a man we don’t pay much attention to. It also portrayed Jane Seymour with a focus she probably deserved, she was recognised by the King but a lot of modern historians keep her lost in Anne Boleyn’s shadow. I’m intrigued about the plot of the final book because my historical knowledge ends with the Kings and Queens and I’ve become quite attached to this version of Thomas Cromwell! There were times when I felt like Mantel didn’t add to what she’d achieved in Wolf Hall but the ending has left me completely desperate for more. In comparison with this book’s predecessor Mantel hasn’t lost her touch. She still controls language like no other writer, and builds up layer upon layer to a scene until it feels like you’re sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder.

Totally worth the wait.

The Light Between Oceans

As promised, I have finally had a chance to sit down and write about The Light Between Oceans. A slight deviation from my usual reading (actually published this century!) I was extremely surprised by this debut novel. The book is set on a small island, Janus, off the coast of Australia. After the war Tom becomes Janus’ lighthouse keeper, marries a girl from the mainland – Isabel – and unsuccessfully tries to start a family. One day a (live) baby washes up on Janus with a dead man and everything changes. It is a difficult book to describe because I need to say things like it is a novel about relationships, what is right and wrong, how your past haunts your future without sounding like I’m talking about chick lit. But I’M NOT! That is a label that does such a disservice to this book.

Lighthouses do seem to have their place in literature (hello, Virginia), adding to a story in a way that another setting couldn’t. Personally, I have very fond not-quite-as-literary memories of reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch as a child. For the most part, the lighthouse enables Tom and Isabel to lead a charmed, idyllic, Adam and Eve kind of life. They are completely suited to their isolation but the tiny world they create gives them opportunity to make some pretty ridiculous decisions they never could have made anywhere else.

There are two massive strengths to this book; Janus is a very realistic but completely unfamiliar world (that I’d really like to move to) and the characters are insanely well crafted. They’re continually off making terrible, flawed, very human choices, and left me siding with the wrong ones! The post war setting works really well in a book that is about morality in extreme human circumstances.

I got sent a proof copy of this book because M. L. Stedman was touring some bookshops and happened to be visiting the one I work in. EXCITING. Plus she signed my copy:

I got to ask M. L. the one question that got stuck in my head whilst reading The Light Between Oceans: Was it difficult to decide what the ending would be? She told me about her writing process: She doesn’t make lots of plans so when she began writing the book, she didn’t know exactly where it would go. It is a story that could have any number of endings and I didn’t know which one would be the one I wanted. Basically, the ending I really wanted would have ruined the book! M. L. said that the more she wrote, the more she just became certain about how it would all turn out. Incidentally I’m not going to spoil the ending but Fleur wrote a review of this book and sums it up really well: “The ending wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t perfect, but it was right.”

If I hadn’t been won over by the book itself (I was), then I would have been won over by M. L. She was very friendly, easy to talk to, and genuinely interested in the different reactions her book provokes. I loved talking to her about this novel and am really pleased I got the opportunity to do so!

A fantastic debut, a story that deserves to be told, and not easily forgotten.