Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.


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 »

Reading in July

We’re fully into summer reading now, and I’m not quite sure what direction to go in. June has been a challenging month for me, where I tackled a couple of books I never thought I’d read. The benefit of challenging books are that (for me anyway) they inspire me to read so much more. The slight downside of reading something difficult that I wouldn’t usually is that it makes me absolutely crave reading every kind of what I would consider my usual books. I’m being pulled in a million directions.

Firstly, I still want to read through my list of war books. I think finishing the WWI books would be a good place to get to, and then I can have a break before starting the WWII books. This means reading:

  • John Boyne, The Absolutist
  • H. G. Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through

My second option is to go with some American books inspired by my last two books – Mrs Bridge and Revolutionary Road (post to follow in the next few days):

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (love this book but haven’t read it for many years) but I also have Tender is the NightThe Diamond as Big as the Ritz and The Tycoon on my Classics Club list.
  • Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility
  • Lucy Moore, Anything Goes (non fiction about the Jazz Age)

Or do I break with my twentieth century reads and go back to the Victorians for more Dickens (I’m currently reading A Tale of Two Cities), or indulge in a little Shakespeare? Make a start with Anthony Trollope? Try another Charlotte Brontë? Plus sometimes I think I should just dedicate a month to Clarissa.

Too many books. My favourite time.

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!

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.

Terrible Things in Bethnal Green

After the ridiculous reading success that was Atonement, I moved onto Jessica Francis Kane’s novel. I had made a tenuous connection in my head between the Bethnal Green tube station disaster during the blitz and Cecelia (in the film at least) dying in a tube station in Atonement. I raced through the book and really enjoyed it and now, a couple of weeks later, after the dust has settled, I’m really astounded at the scope of this novel.

The Report creates an incredible amount of atmosphere for the number of pages. I felt like Kane completely captured the wartime atmosphere and very methodically recreated an entire community. All the details were perfect.

As the community is brought together in mourning, the book follows characters with several different viewpoints. There are officials, chaplains, families, questionably innocent bystanders and descendants of those involved. A lot of the novel concentrates on the report written about the crush and you might worry the treatment of characters could be quite distant and dry. However, the characters and their very different reactions to the event are incredibly well drawn and just really real! I loved the characters that aged between the two different timelines in the book: You get children in the crush with very strong emotional connections to it as adults thirty years later.

Some of the most brilliant books I have discovered this past year are those that blend historical events with fiction. The Report is set in such a unique and unrepeatable moment in history. Before I read this book I was aware of the crush at Bethnal Green tube station but I knew none of the details or how tragic it really was. Whilst, of course, the characters in the book are fiction, the fact remains that this is a real moment in history and real people’s lives changed. I will always find time for novels like this one because I think it is so important to remember the tragedies of war so that we can learn from them. Some parts of history aren’t worth repeating.

The Financial Times quote for the back cover calls it a ‘novel of ideas’. This is one of the best descriptions I could draw attention to, as this novel is so grand in scope. The focus on the writing of the report itself can be compared to the way modern tragedies are reported nowadays.

I highly recommend The Report, not only to readers interested in the era but particularly to lovers of Atonement – they make a fabulous combination.

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.

The Night Watch

The Night Watch, Sarah Waters

You can’t be let down by a Sarah Waters book, can you?

The best part of this novel is the use of time: set in three parts the book works backwards through 1947, 1944 and 1941. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that manages to do this so successfully – I was completely hooked on finding out why characters acted the way they did, and what secrets their pasts contained.

The war time setting is executed perfectly: you get a very vivid sense of what the raids and fire storms were like for the people living in London at the time. There is also a medical scene I read during my lunch break at work that made me feel like I was going to faint because it was so realistically written. I also enjoyed the focus on women’s roles during WWII – there is a real mix of jobs and relationships beyond the surface.

I loved the characters, their stories mingled together in a way that didn’t seemed really natural, the affairs were brilliant… After a slightly slow start this turned out to be a great book.

The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours, Kate Morton

I picked this up as a bit of a summer concession, a little treat for myself. I was expecting it to be a bit, well, rubbish… but in an enjoyable way. So with these staggeringly low expectations I was pleasantly surprised. While The Distant Hours does seem to be a loving tribute to some excellent english gothic novels (Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, anything by Susan Hill) it doesn’t quite measure up. Mainly because its too slow. Sure, there are a lot of stories going on and there is a lot of switching between the 1939-1941 and 1992 (which was done really well) but it needed much more momentum.

There are however, some things that Morton does really well that does make the novel worth reading:

  • Characters – I grew quite attached to the sisters sitting up in the castle, and I did like the bookish main character.
  • Castles – Excellent gothic setting, crumbling, creaking, mad writers in the attic. The war time setting was obviously a real interest to Morton and was very convincing. Well done.
  • Twists – I was guessing what was going to happen all the way through, and normally I am content to just sit and read my way to the end. And despite guessing about a billion different endings, I was still surprised.

She spins a good yarn.

Lets Not Talk About Larsson.

The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo

Alas, my holiday is over so thats the end of my holiday book list! I went for a bit of scandinavian crime this time. This was a proper page turner, and mixed modern day with 1940s war stories. Very dark, masculine, and unrelenting. A bit confusing, but that could be me reading too fast and not concentrating enough. I never manage to guess who the murderer is! Nesbo’s detective is quite intriguing so I’ll perhaps read some more in the series.

Oh, and a good translation too.

Oh Liesel! Feelings!

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white.

It is a struggle to do this book justice.

At first I thought the writing style was awful because it didn’t flow. Every time I was getting into the story, there would be a little quote, or the narrator would interrupt or just change what the story was about completely. But now I’ve finished and have realised what a genius book this is I think I understand why it is written the way it is:

  1. Death: He says his heart is a circle, whereas the human heart is linear. He is everywhere all at once and sees everyone at their best and worst, usually interpreting things afterwards. The story is told from his perspective and in hindsight, so it takes into account all that he has seen.
  2. Words: This book is all about the transforming power of words. It is not a new argument of course, but Zusak takes the line that Hitler rose to power because of his words. And so Liesel’s affair with books, the time spent by her father teaching her to write, the books made by Max etc etc, these all add up to rebelling / reclaiming words.
  3. Storytelling: The characters in The Book Thief tell a lot of stories. But a lot of this is focused on when it is the right time to tell people certain things. This very considered focus on language and storytelling is reflected in the structure of the book – things don’t have to happen chronologically, because there is a right time to be told things. The book deserves to be read with a sense of foreboding and an awareness that death will have met all the characters by the end of the book.

The best thing about this book, for me, was how human it is. Perhaps Death is the perfect narrator for this story because he is looking at humans from the outside and can make us think objectively about how we have done such things. The first time Liesel watches the Jewish people paraded on the way to Dachau I was reading with a horrible weight on me; a sense of claustrophobia and futility because I couldn’t work out what anyone could have realistically done to save anyone. And that thought helps me to see that history could so easily repeat itself if people do not remember and try to understand.

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

The Book Thief