Saturday, 29 September 2012

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (4/5)

GoodReads says: In Woolf’s last novel, the action takes place on one summer’s day at a country house in the heart of England, where the villagers are presenting their annual pageant. A lyrical, moving valedictory.

I say: Between the Acts was Woolf’s last novel, and although the novel is complete, according my edition, she never got the chance to do a final revision before she died. I could go on and on about how much I love Woolf’s writing, but after a couple of reviews it tends to feel a tad repetitive. Therefore I am going to make it easy on myself by saying

I love everything about Virginia Woolf’s writing.


Anyway, throughout the novel we are introduced to quite a group of villagers who have all gathered at the Olivers’ house to witness the annual pageant put on by Miss La Trobe. I find it extremely hard to write about any of the characters without mentioning them all as their lives intertwine so much. But, as in most villages, everyone is slightly miserable in their own little ways and merely trying to get through the day as smoothly as possible.  Usually the pageant is a celebration of English history, and since they all know how it goes, they don’t really care that much about it.

This year, however, Miss La Trobe has decided to put on something quite different.

We follow the villagers throughout the day, getting a hum about who they are and how they feel about life and their neighbours. As always, Woolf does a great job of getting inside the heads of the different characters and giving hints at their emotional state. One thing that I love about her is that nothing is ever spelled out completely, but we get little bits and pieces here and there.

What we do get in full, though, is the pageant in all its tediousness and glory. Actually, that’s a lie; we don’t get the entire pageant because the wind is blowing so hard that we, and the villagers, miss a lot of the words. But I loved being inside of their heads reading their different reactions to the scenes that were being plaid out. I sometimes get a bit dubious about books/plays within a book, but this pageant didn’t take away anything from the plot of the novel.

It all flowed along naturally.

I am not going to explain what the pageant was about, but some of it was hilarious. And since the novel is set right before the Second World War, I liked some of the historical references in there (though I’m not big on British history).

All in all I loved the way Woolf made me feel like an eavesdropper in this little village, and the realistic way she portrayed all the characters. The reason it doesn’t get a full 5/5 is because of the predictability of the characters (and also because there’s always so much allusion in Woolf’s work that I have to read it again to maybe get the full grasp). Still, I am in love with her and looking forward to reading more of her work.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Wise Children by Angela Carter (4/5)

The back says: A richly comic tale of the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families, the Hazards and the Chances, Angela carter’s witty and bawdy novel is populated with as many sets of twins and mistaken identities as any Shakespeare comedy, and celebrates the magic of over a century of show business.

I say: With the risk of sounding incredibly ridiculous, I must acknowledge that this was a tour de force of almost epic proportions. It was funny, surreal, awkward, gloomy, and pretty much every adjective in the English language.

But it was also silly to no end.

It would be impossible for me to even begin to explain the complexity of the way all of the characters relate to each other, but in short we follow Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate twin daughters of a great Shakespearean actor, Melchoir Hazard, as they reminisce about their lives as chorus girls, and their wish to be acknowledge by their father and his family. Like the blurb above says, there are a lot of twins and strangeness in these families.

And I loved almost every bit of it.

Nora and Dora are just the type of crazy old ladies I want to be when I grow up. They are incredibly cheeky, full of life and adventure and shockingly foul-mouthed when the situation requires it. I fell in love with them and they made me wish I had a twin that would always stand by me no matter what.

Because the cast is so great I’ll make due with saying that we have a collection of characters to last until the end of days. The kind and generous uncle that’s always on the move; the old actor who refuses to believe that his best days are behind him; the jealous legitimate daughters who do everything to hurt the Chances; the woman who takes care of Nora and Dora with a mysterious path; and so on and so forth.

Carter writes brilliantly and seamlessly introduces all of the characters without any fuss, and, for the most part, the plot is so energetic it’s like watching a film. There is a lot of humour in here, and I laughed out loud a lot, but also a lot of cringe worthy details, and serious emotional moments.

She does it all and she does it with flair.

The only reason this gets a 4/5 is because of the end. I can’t really go into it – obviously – but I shall say that as much as I would have liked to love it, I didn’t. Maybe other will think it perfect, but for me it was a tad too implausible even for this story. But I shall be on the hunt for more books by Carter.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (4.5/5)

GoodReads says: "Their Eyes Were Watching God," an American classic, is the luminous and haunting novel about Janie Crawford, a Southern Black woman in the 1930's, whose journey from a free-spirited girl to a woman of independence and substance has inspired writers and readers for close to 70 years. This poetic, graceful love story, rooted in Black folk traditions and steeped in mythic realism, celebrates boldly and brilliantly African-American culture and heritage. And in a powerful, mesmerizing narrative, it pays quiet tribute to a Black woman, who, though constricted by the times, still demanded to be heard.

Originally published in 1937 and long out of print, the book was reissued in 1975 and nearly three decades later, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is considered a seminal novel in American fiction.

I say: This is the second time I’ve tried reading this, and I am glad that I stuck with it this time, because it’s an incredibly beautiful novel. What put me off it the first time was the fact that all the quotes are written in vernacular, and I take such issues with that. I understand why authors do this, but it is just so painful for my senses; I wind up having to mouth the words and it takes me twice as long to read the novel.

However, this time it was worth it.

And the main reason it was worth it was because of Hurston’s achingly beautiful prose that wasn’t written in vernacular. It was almost poetic at times, and filled with so much wisdom I wanted to live inside of Janie’s head for a little longer than a mere 193 pages. She was a dreamer who felt the world deeply, which was not accepted back then for a woman; especially a black woman. Her place was by her man, of which her first two were a huge disappointment. Her first husband threatened to beat her, but she ran away before he had a chance. But then the man she ran away with, Jody, got so mad at her for a poorly made dinner he hit her: 

“Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon that image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up her feelings for some other man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.” – p 72


In hindsight I wish that I had been given this to read when I was a teenager because of the empowering attitude of Janie, and her refusal to let her spirit and dreams get broken down by other people. It took her a long while to find out who she really was, but once she realized it, there was no stopping her.

I have to say that it’s not all doom and gloom, in fact, there’s not too much of that here. One of the things I really enjoyed where all of the different characters who would spend their time insulting each other and just being plain silly. It brought the story to a different dimension and lifted it off the pages; it felt like I was there on the porch joining in then fun, and I laughed out loud a lot.

It’s easy to analyse it to death, but I’m not going to do that here – it’ll be too one-sided. Instead I am going to push it on everyone I know in hopes that at least one of them will read it so that we can have a discussion about it. 4.5/5 because of the vernacular, but I still look forward to reading this again in a few years.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (2.5/5)

The back says: Leo Percepied, aspiring writer and self-styled free-wheeling bum, gravitates to the subterraneans, impoverished intellectuals who haunt the bars of San Francisco. One of them is Mardou Fox, beautiful and a little crazy, whose dark eyes, full of suffering and sweetness, find recognition in Leo. But, afraid of his growing involvement, Leo sets out to destroy their love.

Exuberant and melancholy, Kerouac’s spontaneous prose flows across the pages. Written in three days, The Subterraneans is, like all Kerouac’s work, closely related to his own life while encapsulating his great vision of America.

Also included here is the novel Pic, the story of a young black boy who makes his own journey on the road.

I say: This was a huge disappointment – especially after having read, and loved, On the Road – and it’s mostly due to the prose. It’s choppy, erratic, grammatically unpleasing, and just full of continuous confusion as to who is speaking. Where I found On the Road to be intense and engaging, I find The Subterraneans to be forced and annoying.

I can see how it would only take him three days to finish this.

Another thing that bothered me was that Leo Percepied is Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac. Yes, both are semi-biographical works, but why bother changing the names when they are all the same character dealing with slightly different plots? And speaking of characters, they’re all so thinly portrayed and interchangeable I got bored.

And the “love story” was nothing to write home about.

Kerouac’s stream of consciousness prose reads like a stoner trying to tell you a story, and there’s only so much attention one can pay to that. Luckily, it was only 93 pages, and I give it 1.5/5.

Pic was a whole lot better; which isn’t really that much of a feat, to be honest. I liked the main character Pictorial Review Jackson and his brother Slim, who shows up one day in North Carolina to take his younger brother with him to New York. Pic, who is living with his aunt, is grateful to steal away in the night, and it’s all about their journey to the big city.

Unfortunately, this short story is written in my main pet peeve, dialect. I am not going to make assumptions about Kerouac writing in the vernacular of African Americans because, for all I know, he could have been a master at it. I just didn’t care for it, which is a shame, because the story wouldn’t have lost any of its authenticity had he written in grammatically correct English.

But then again, did Kerouac ever do that?

This is a genuine question because I’m scared to pick up any more of his works.

Either way, the prose reads like Kerouac, and I give Pic 3/5.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (3/5)

GoodReads says: One of the acknowledged masterpieces of 19th century realism, Madame Bovary is revered by writers and readers around the world, a mandatory stop on any pilgrimage through modern literature. Flaubert's legendary style, his intense care over the selection of words and the shaping of sentences, his unmatched ability to convey a mental world through the careful selection of telling details, shine on every page of this marvelous work.

Madame Bovary scandalized its readers when it was first published in 1857. And the story itself remains as fresh today as when it was first written, a work that remains unsurpassed in its unveiling of character and society. It tells the tragic story of the romantic but empty-headed Emma Rouault. When Emma marries Charles Bovary, she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women's magazines. But Charles is an ordinary country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover, Rodolphe, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair. And Flaubert captures every step of this catastrophe with sharp-eyed detail and a wonderfully subtle understanding of human emotions.
Translated: by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

I say: I can see why this scandalized readers when it was published, but as with most of these older novels, it’s not nearly as shocking for those of us reading them now. So, for that feat, I kind of applaud Flaubert.

But only kind of, and here’s why:

I am so tired of female characters marrying people they don’t love, for whatever reason, and then having affairs with other men. They have absolutely no long-term planning (for lack of a better expression) and/or are just so ridiculously naïve and fickle they bring to mind children in the playground constantly wanting every new toy they see. Now, I am no way saying that one should stay in an unhappy marriage or that women in those days had much choice, but there’s just no excuse for the cheating.

End of moral indignation.

As can be deduced from that little outburst, I didn’t like Emma Bovary at all. In the beginning of the novel she seems nice enough, but when she starts getting bored with her husband Charles, it’s almost as if she turns into a different person. Although I understand how her ennui leads to contempt for Charles, I don’t see how she can be so naïve as to believe that life should be like the novels she reads. Or is it that she simple feels that she is entitled to a certain lifestyle. Bearing in mind that she is not stupid, she still manages to lie, cheat and plot her way to ruin.

I cannot understand her depravity or selfishness, and I actually get quite peeved just thinking about it.

And then we have, as always, the buffoon of a husband who doesn’t understand or see anything, and blindly believes his wife. But even with these quintessential characteristics for all husbands of women like Emma, I quite liked Charles. He wasn’t the brightest of men, but did the best he could with what he had. Unfortunately, he was so easily persuaded by those around him he wound up making one mistake after the other.

His only mistake was being eager to please and trust, and that never leads to good things.

After reading the synopsis I feel a bit weird that I don’t really have that much to say about Flaubert’s writing (or the translation). It was fast paced and showed some intricate detail of life in France at the time, both in the country and in Paris. I actually enjoyed some of the neighbours’ talk and stories more than I did the Bovary’s. I feel about this novel the same as I did Tess of the D’ Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy; it’s a great literary work, and I acknowledge that, but since this blog is more about how I feel about the story, I can only give this 3/5.  

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (3/5)[re-read]

The back says: Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.
I say: This is my second time reading The Bell Jar, mostly because when I was having a discussion about it with a friend I started doubting my feelings about it. I was saying how underwhelmed I had been by it; comparing it, of course, to her poetry, but my friend was being adamant that it was a great novel.

So I read it again.

And I was underwhelmed – again.

Or should that be ‘still’?

In all honesty and fairness, I don’t really have any criticism of this novel, other than the fact that it just leaves me indifferent. Although I understand and recognise its importance, it fails to leave an impact. There is nothing wrong with the characters – they all seem real enough – and I sort of find Esther endearing and really feel for her through her struggle with depression. Plath, having experienced most of what Esther goes through, does a great job of describing the slow decline, the rock bottom and ultimately the slow rise back to normalcy.

It’s all very neatly packaged – and I think that is what’s bothering me.

I love Plath’s poetry, and to go from that to reading the prose in The Bell Jar, I feel cheated (for lack of a better word). I’m used to strong emotions, crafty metaphors, magical phrasing, and there is just nothing of that here. I’ve always maintained that, in my experience, great poets write bad not as good novels and vice versa, so it kind of feels nice to have that reaffirmed the second time around.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad novel, and I would recommend everyone to read it; if not for the prose, then at least for the subject matter at hand. It’s just that when you’re used to Plath’s poetry, this is nowhere near as genius.

Friday, 7 September 2012

I Won the Classic Bribe Challenge

I hardly ever win anything, so this is most awesome news. If you're a reader of this blog you already know that I love me some classics, and this was a great incentive for me to read more of them during the summer. I managed to read and review a total of 28 books (which means that I have miscalculated somewhere), and I think that is rather amazing,

if I do say so myself.

So, much thanks to Quirky Girls Read and I'll use my Amazon gift card to buy more classics.

Monday, 3 September 2012

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (4.5/5)

The back says: The most autobiographical of Virginia Woolf's work, "To the Lighthouse" is based on her own childhood experiences, and while it touches on childhood and children's perceptions and desires, it also explores adult relationships, marriage and the changing class structure of its time.

I say: Oh, how utterly in love I am with Woolf’s way of writing; her languid prose sets the mood perfectly, while her long and undulating sentences make me yearn to dig myself deeper into her world and just let her similes wash over me. It’s all so very poetic and revealing; and I am in utter awe of her talent.

To the Lighthouse was voted by The Millions as one of the 10 most difficult books last month and I have to agree. It would be ludicrous for me to even pretend that I understood all the nuances of the prose, characters, and the imagery – but for me, this is merely the icing on the cake – I am already looking forward to re-reading this magic.

It’s hard to say exactly what the novel is about, since we initially follow the Ramsay’s and their friends during a day in their cottage; and a few years later as some of them return for different reasons. The first part of the novel was my favourite; the way that we weave in between and inside of the characters consciousness with such ease, feeling emotions as they appear only to be catapulted into the scenery outside, wondering how all these people are able to exist in the same physical space without more friction.

One of my favourite parts was the way Mrs Ramsay was able to read her husband’s thoughts on his face and in her own way try to calm him, while the children were preparing themselves for an impending outburst. The way that Woolf describes that family dynamic; the little signs that they all could read on each other’s faces reminded me of dinners we used to have when I was younger.

The second and third parts of the novel were brilliant in their own way, but not so much as a continuation of the first. I’m not sure why, but there was a certain disappointment at the hasty, almost nonchalant, way we were handed some of the updates that I didn’t particularly care for.

And yet the end was magnificent.

A part of me wants to just start re-reading this right now, but I will have to pace myself and read some of Woolf’s other work in the meantime.

*This is my twenty-sixth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Going Back to School

As of this week I’m back at university, which means that I probably won’t be posting as many reviews as before – it all depends, really. After spending a few years thinking about what I want to do for the rest of my life, I’ve now finally decided to just go for it and study literature, since that is my main love.

I’ll be studying Literary Science (full-time), as well as an additional course, Literature and Existentialism (50%). I’ve been looking through the reading list for the Existentialism course and I’ve read most of the novels, so I’ll be focusing on the textbooks there – I’ll be re-reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Stranger by Camus (which was my next read anyways), as well as some of my other favourite existentialist works.

Excitement overload.

I’m not sure what’s going on with Literary Science course since I haven’t been able to access anything online, but I’ll hopefully be able to do that tomorrow. I’m sort of hoping that I’ve already read most of the novels for that one as well, so that I don’t have to rush through any reading and still have time to read for my own pleasure.

There’ve been few reviews this week because I’ve been sick (again) and I’m only just getting my strength back today, so reviews will pop up during the week.

I’ve finished 29 classics for The Classic Bribe Challenge as of this week, which is a hell of a lot more than I ever would have imagined. I haven’t reviewed them all, so I’m not sure they’ll count for the giveaway, but I’m just amazed that I managed that many.

I can’t believe I’ve read 89 books so far this year.

Ah well... as you were!