Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Reading

Landscapes: Books and Love

I have been thinking about this sentiment from Parade’s End:

“The land had not changed. Only, the times… they had changed.”

I feel the same way about Charlotte Reads Classics. I haven’t been writing mostly because I haven’t read a truly good classic novel in quite some time. Perhaps the consequence of reading nothing but the English literary canon for two years is that you need some time to rediscover books again.

Not just the books that show up time and time again on must read lists (oh, I do love a good must read list). I’m talking about real, scanning the shelves, never heard of the title or the author, judging by covers, reading the opening line in the book shop and then racing home to read it in one afternoon kind of reading. The reading I did as a child. The sort of reading that made me fall in love with the very act of whirlwind book affairs.

I miss writing about this sort of reading, I miss knowing what you are reading, and I miss talking about books with all of you. I thought about starting a new blog but lets face it, so much of my tastes (reading and otherwise) are pure nostalgia, so why leave all of this behind? Instead, a little face lift and a new direction.

I went to Haworth yesterday – Brontë country – to walk across open moorland and revel in the colours of the landscape. Something about the fresh air and the quiet got me in the mood for writing again, writing about reading no matter what book I have in my hand. I hope you have no objections, maybe a little bit more of my life too.

I need some suggestions of what to read next. I do want to try something a little more heavyweight than the huge stack of YA novels I’ve devoured, but I am not sure of anything seriously challenging right now. For example I have been thinking about a War and Peace re-read to brush up my commentary – but this is a project for when I am back up to speed. For now, possible contenders are Mrs Dalloway, Sons and Lovers, or maybe a bit of Robert Graves’ Greek Myths.

What do you think? Suggestions welcome…

I Read, Much of the Night, and Go South in the Winter


I have thought about you a lot, recently.

Winter has always had a special magnetic quality for me. When there’s a chill to the air on crisp winter mornings I want to set out for Netherfield. On misty afternoons when the leaves have left the trees sharp and bare I want to wander across the Moors. And, of course, when its dark in December and the lights are warm inside houses how do you stop yourself reaching for a Dickens?

The past few months I have been reading like I have fallen in love again. The books haven’t been Classics, but they have been devoured all the same. I went to a talk and signing by Donna Tartt last month and she said something that really stuck with me. She was talking about art and different ways of being personally affected by pieces of art, when she explained why books, in her opinion, are the greatest art form. Essentially because unlike looking at a painting, or watching a film, when you are reading you are experiencing something first hand rather than voyeuristically looking in on. This is why when you finish a book you are never the same person that chose to pick it up.

This is what I have missed about reading classics and talking about them with you. The reading is as fulfilling and passionate as ever, but I’ve really missed the community of bloggers – especially my fellow classics bloggers – to share life-changing books with… Remember when we all read Clarissa?

So now on December 1st, as homage to my years of classics blogging not to be wasted, I propose a literary advent calendar. Between now and Christmas Eve, I will post once a day (ambitious) with a quotation, a photo, a book jacket, a review – there will be something different each day.

I am finding my feet again: Please join me for my journey back.

Thoughtful Reading

So often when I pick up a book, I expect to finish it having learnt something. I anticipate starting at the beginning of a story, following its thread and eventually saying goodbye. Is this a Western idea? Is it the majority? There is a tendency to want a book to be more than ink and paper. Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars becomes obsessed with the idea that the characters in her favourite novel would have gone on to live their lives after the final page.

What if we don’t think of books and stories in this way? Or, more to the point, how do we read books that don’t follow this pattern? Last month I read Thousand Cranes by a Japanese writer called Yasunari Kawabata. Reading it made me realise the expectations I have about reading, because the story didn’t conform to them. Not in a crazy Ulysses way, I might add, just in an unsettling, slightly dissatisfying way. The lack of satisfaction wasn’t the book’s fault either – it just wasn’t written to be read the way I read. People collided and parted, formed relationships, led seemingly normal lives, but there was an air of impenetrability to the text: Personal history wasn’t explained and daily life was shielded by a culture so different to my own that I needed an interpreter.

Difficult reading, it seems, is not only composed of long, old, European texts. A challenging book (and Thousand Cranes is only a hundred or so pages) for me, turned out to be something that asked more questions than it answered. So I read a few books that aren’t Classics – teen fiction and more modern books. Side note: If you find yourself even a little bit tempted to read Heft by Liz Moore then do it, because it is excellent. Don’t, however, read Skios by Michael Frayn because it doesn’t deliver the Wodehouse-ian capers it promises.

This afternoon, huddled under a blanket and only occasionally braving to stretch a slippered foot into a beam of sunlight, I read Cloud Atlas thoughtfully, eagerly, and not pressured by its unconventional structure. This book is so clever, so inspiring, a real humanist feat of joy: The word and its history is huge, whereas people are small but never insignificant. 

Here is one of my favourite parts:

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Perhaps if I hadn’t started reading thoughtfully I would have missed out.

I’ll come back to you, classics list, I’m just coming back the long way round.

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.

Two Weeks in July

I’ve been having the greatest reading fortnight ever. I rebelled against all previous July ideas and have been on a holiday reading fling. I’ve read whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it, and so July thus far has gone like this:

  • The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson
  • A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  • The Enchanter, Lila Azam Zangeneh
  • A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  • This is Life, Dan Rhodes
  • Before the Frost, Henning Mankell
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson

Yes, that is a new book every two days (or less). This is partly because I’ve not been feeling well, and haven’t felt like doing much or moving around, but I think mostly this is because these are really good books. Sometimes it is easy to forget the escapist joy that comes with a good book, especially when your working life is centered around them. As much as I have enjoyed reading through a theme (like my war books) these books defy that idea. They have nothing in common with each other: Some are Swedish, one is set in Paris, there are American memoirs and memoirs from the 1970s North of England. There are essays, biographies, crime and decent stories. These books have felt like adventures in themselves. I’ve travelled around, seen into people’s lives and have fallen in love – with reading.

The slight downside of reading so much is that I am really far behind concerning actually sharing these really good books with you all! So I’m writing this update to hopefully guilt myself into writing some more posts soon.

I’m now reading Chocolat by Joanne Harris – about twelve years late, I know – and I’m really enjoying that too. May the manic, enjoyable, adventurous, falling in love with reading continue.

Mapping My Books and The Sense of an Ending

I have favourite places to read. I organise my bookshelves. I make maps of books in my head.

This morning I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I loved the book and it gave me a reading experience I had almost forgotten about. I read it in bed whilst it got lighter outside, I sat on the edge of the bath reading waiting for the shower to heat up, I read it with one hand whilst eating breakfast, and I kept my boyfriend waiting to leave the house for ten minutes while I read the last few pages.

When I read, mostly I’m thinking about my grand literature* map. For the last few years, each book I read fits into the map of the ones I have already read, making a catalogue of writers, time periods, characters. A compendium of links and connections that I spend most of my time thinking about. For example, when I recently read David Lodge’s A Man of Parts I was inserting it into what I knew from reading about writers. The book also mentions Henry James so I was also thinking about his novels. I was also fitting it into what I have read about the Edwardians, and the First World War.

The mapping doesn’t stop there: It also influences what I read next. For the most part, I feel a compulsive need to own all of the books I read. If I borrow a book and enjoy it, I then go and buy my own copy. I buy books when they seem interesting, which means I have a ridiculous number of books that I haven’t got around to reading yet. I think maybe two or three years worth! The plus side of this, is that should my reading take an unexpected turn, I usually have a book to hand to accommodate it.

On the down side, I get quite distracted whilst reading because I’m thinking about the next book on the map. I like creating these reading lists…

  1. The Sense of an Ending = Julian Barnes. The next logical step: More Julian Barnes.
  2. Flaubert’s Parrot = Already own, unread. Next: More books about France by an English writer.
  3. Pure, by Andrew Miller = Books about Paris in particular.
  4. The Guermantes Way = the next in my very slow ongoing reading of Proust. More Paris!
  5. Paris Without End = non fictional version of The Paris Wife. More fictional autobiographies.
  6. Author, Author by David Lodge. A fictional biography of Henry James. You see where this is going.
And this could continue for quite a while. I’m not saying this is a concrete list of what I will be reading for the next month or so, because the map is never set in stone. If I change my mind about what to read next, I’ll just go for it and what I read will go off in a completely different direction.

But enough of reading in general. Reading The Sense of an Ending reminded me of reading without this ridiculous distracting onslaught of mapping. I was completely immersed. I know these people so well. (My GOD Julian Barnes knows characterisation.) It was a perfect little read: Not worthy like some Booker Prize winners, not fluff. Weighty, memorable, worth reading aloud. No wasted words, not too much plot… Focused.

* As I will have hopefully demonstrated, the term grand literature refers to the sheer volume of books I plan to fit into the map rather than any definition of literature itself, or classics.

The Modern Writer Needs Neither Characters Nor Plot

The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels could no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it.

There is a joke between my friends about readers splitting into two camps: reading for plot or reading for people. I confess that most of the time when deciding to read a book, I don’t really consider the plot. I’ve started many famous novels with no idea what they are about but they have passed my first line test regardless. I won’t ever buy a book without reading the first line. My plot driven friends have decided that the books I like to read are ‘full of people chatting in drawing rooms’. So, when I read this passage in Atonement, there was no way I could let it pass without comment. The novelist in the paragraph above is Briony Tallis, the narrator, the younger sister, the one who needs to atone.

Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness novels influence Briony’s writing, and  Ian McEwan may be following his own advice. This is the second of his novels that I have read (the other being Enduring Love) and there are similar methods of writing in each: Plot and characters come second place to impression and small unusual events. In Atonement it is a play, a broken vase, a fountain. In Enduring Love it is  a hot air balloon, a picnic, a child. The writer picks out a detail of life that wouldn’t feature in the lives of characters in any other novel. Ignoring an outright description of character makes for the strongest impressions. I think you can never truly know how you would react in certain situations unless you are in them, but the way you react tells you more about yourself than any mundane description could. McEwan uses this idea to his advantage and creates truly real characters. Without seeming to strive to create them at all.

Now having said that plot isn’t an issue, Atonement is a fabulous story. It manages to explain broad concepts in humanity like love and war through a concentrated set of characters. There is childhood, there is a war, there is the home left afterwards. I really enjoyed the constructed nature of Atonement. All the references to Briony’s writing, as well as being told from the start about her ‘crime’ makes the purpose of the story clear, but it never unfolded the way I would have predicted.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?

The ending, perfect fiction. In a few words, the meaning of the novel changes. It is the cleverest thing I have read in ages. (I remember the very same effect in Enduring Love!) The story is a brilliant one and as clichéd as it may sound I feel like I’ve come full circle with the people in it.

The edition I have is part of the Vintage 21st birthday series. Each novel is a different colour, Atonement is much more green than my photo makes it look: it is exactly the colour of Cecelia’s dress worn that evening in the library…

I am now reading The Report by Jessica Francis Kane. It is about the events at Bethnal Green tube station during the blitz, ever so slightly (sob) linked to Atonement.

Paris with Nancy Mitford

This month I changed my mind about everything I wanted to read. I put Dickens to one side and I picked up a modern classic instead. A new reading love affair began with The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Oh, it has been a whirlwind fling! Once I had finished the first book I immediately went and bought Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. I’ve devoured them all and I’m longing to go back to Paris!

Nancy Mitford writes brilliantly witty social commentaries about an age completely lost after the war. She writes about the difference between English and French aristocrats, their love affairs, high society and gossip. The characters are absolutely amazing; there were so many times I put the book down and said ‘You’ll never believe what has happened now!’ In a true testament to how original and enjoyable I found these novels: I feel exactly like Nancy opened a door into these characters lives and let me watch it all play out. I feel really sad that I’ve finished them, but know I’d happily re-read these books over and over again.

The Pursuit of Love is set in the English countryside. Alconleigh is a similar country house to the ones the Mitford girls grew up in. Fanny, the narrator, and her cousin become of age and start looking for love. The book mainly follows Fanny’s cousin Linda, whose marriages take he from conservative MPs in England to Communists in Spain before eventually finding true love in Paris. Fanny is autobiographically based on Nancy herself, and as a narrator she is fantastic. I was dying to know more about her!

Love in a Cold Climate follows Fanny as a newly married woman in Oxford. She tells the story of a childhood friend, Polly, and her marriage following her return to England from India. There are some brilliant characters and plenty of high society. I’m not sure why this is the referenced Nancy Mitford novel, I preferred The Pursuit of Love.

The Blessing is a full on Parisian extravaganza. The love affair is between Grace, and English girl and her french husband Charles-Edouard. Their son is a total brat and concocts many an elaborate scheme to keep them apart. Full of Parisian life and romance, this novel is a decadent indulgence, but has plenty of ridiculous characters to laugh at!

Don’t Tell Alfred is a (for me) much appreciated return to Fanny’s life. It takes place after her children have grown up, when her husband is unexpectedly given the job of Ambassador to Paris. It is only fair that Fanny gets to go to Paris too, I suppose! This is a slightly sad novel as it covers the changing attitudes of the younger generation.

What comes Next? I fancy going for WWII / 1930s-1950s  kind of books so expect Atonement, more Stella Gibbons, maybe even the beginning of The Forsyte SagaLittle Dorrit is not abandoned, but there is plenty of time for Dickens when I’m more in the mood. Ditto Clarissa. Meanwhile it’ll be a test to see if I can wait for payday before I buy Wigs on the Green – the last (in print) novel of Mitford’s left to read.

The Books of 2011

There are a few hours of 2011 left but I have finished all the books this year I’m ever going to finish. I have just started Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which is as large as my dictionary!

This is a round up of my year of reading, and I have to say I think this is the best year yet:

93 books

My new author discoveries and particular recommends for the year are:

There isn’t an author on that list whose backlist I don’t immediately want to  devour, except for Anne Brontë, which I’ve already done!

Here is how 2011 went for me:

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