The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 30 March 2009

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This was one of those books that I had always heard of but never got around to reading, so when I saw a copy for sale at Reid of Liverpool last year, I bought it. I was also in the unusual and fortunate position of not having seen the film or knowing the story beforehand.
Our unnamed narrator tells us the story in retrospect, about the early months of her marriage to Maxim de Winter, a wealthy aristocrat, during the 1930's. They meet in Monte Carlo and after a long honeymoon, return to Maxims beautiful and imposing mansion in Cornwall to live.
The new Mrs de Winter is very different to the first, much younger, inexperienced, shy and also of lower class, and she is overwhelmed with uncertainty and low self esteem. Her insecurities are pushed to paranoia almost as she constantly feels measured by Rebecca, her predecessor, who drowned in a boating accident the year before. She was supposed to be very beautiful, confident, outgoing and exceptional at everything she did. In fact, it seems that everyone loved her, not least her old house keeper, the formidable Mrs Danvers, who makes sure that the new mistress knows that she will never be up to Rebecca's standards. However, not all is what it seems, as the story unfolds.
This book is frequently compared to Jane Eyre, being a story about the 'other wife', with a Gothic setting and the narrator being the central female character. It is not identical though and brings its own innovations with it, enabling this novel to stand on its own, as it has for decades.
There are 5 major characters, and lots of sub characters. Alongside our narrator, whose growing uncertainties and feelings of inadequacy shape our perception of the plot, we have Maxim, older, secretive, and so wrapped up in his own thoughts he fails to meet his young wifes needs. We also have Mrs Danvers, 'someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull's face, parchment white, set on a skeleton's frame.' Unforgettable!
The other two major characters are where du Maurier has come into her own with their unconventionalities. We have Rebecca, who we know is the crux of the book because it is named after her. Although dead, she is present on every page. We almost feel her presence more solidly than the narrator, because by her own self deprecating nature, she invites us to see herself only in beige, and Rebecca in glorious technicolour, even to the sophisticated scent of Azaleas left on her handkerchief, long after she has gone.
Lastly we have Manderley, the legendary house which is also a major character. Imposing and huge, it forms the claustrophobic, but compelling backdrop for the whole tale from the very first famous sentence...'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'
Although less obviously Gothic than its 19th century comparisons, this novel has all of the elements subtly woven amongst a richly atmospheric story (the rambling mansion with unused rooms and corridors, a ghostly presence, an old crone, a threatened younger girl, an older man, secrets and mystery, death, atmospheric weather, lots of doubling). I became involved with the story and characters almost immediately and found it a pleasure to read and find out its secrets. At times I wanted to slap the narrator for constantly putting herself down, frequently describing herself as unattractive and awkward. I also wanted to slap her husband whose self interest dominates all of his thoughts as his young wife is almost imprisoned within her bewhildering marriage. I loved it for these reasons too. We are supposed to be exasperated by them, to want to scream at them to open up. The 'jolly-hockysticks' language was also entertaining, evoking a whole other England that is rich in atmosphere and setting.
I really enjoyed this book as so many others have done. I am also very fortunate to have not known the story beforehand.
This completes #12 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read a classic, defined as anything written before 1970. Rebecca was first published in 1938 but more than that its popularity has ensured its continual publication since then. You will find it among many lists of great novels being widely read and enjoyed for generations.
Here is a reading group guide...

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Haiku Year

I wanted to share this little book with you. I found it a few years ago and loved it instantly. It has become one of my favourites.
The paragraph on the back of the book explains how these poems came together...
'In 1996, seven friends agreed to write one haiku a day and mail them to each other. At the end of the year, they realized that their collection of simple, critical observations had given them a new way to look at the details of their lives.'
Told in a seasonal cycle the haiku in this book are really inspiring, and I have many favourites among them. There is a quote from someone called Todd Colby on the back also...
'In this era of computer screens, it's nice to be reminded just how underrated reality is. Sometimes we miss the most sublime moments on our way to where we'd rather be. These haiku remind us to look, listen, and feel what's right at the end of our noses.'
The other thing that is interesting about this book is who the collection of friends are...
Tom Gilroy - actor, director and playwright from New York
Anna Grace - a writer and performer from New York
Jim McKay - film and videomaker
Douglas A Martin - writer and poet
Grant Lee Philips - songwriter and recording artist for the group Grant Lee Buffalo
Rick Roth - human rights activist, businessman
Michael Stipe - singer/songwriter with REM, photographer and film producer.
A wonderful find and an excellent collection of contemporary haiku.
Highly recommended!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Reader: a discussion

As part of the 2009 mini challenges, #10 invites you to take part in a group discussion about a book. A few of us at work had been reading this one and there had been conversation about it already, so I canvassed opinion from some fellow Octogonian's, so as to bring it together here on my blog as a discussion.
Besides myself (L), there was another female (P) and a male (G).
G started the whole thing off because he had spoken to P about it being the best book he had ever read. After P had read it she lent it to me. G had read it about 6 years earlier.
On completing the book all of us felt moved by what we had read. G had an 'overwhelming sense that this was a book that should be read by others.' He has given it as a birthday gift many times. P had mixed feelings about it on completion because she felt she had expected more from it, after hearing a lot about it from G and in the media. L was surprised at how much it had made her feel during the latter part of the book.
Both L and P preferred the last parts of the book, feeling that the first part, about their affair, was necessary but could be a bit flat in parts. P said this made Michael seem 'quite cold and difficult to relate to'. L felt this applied to Hanna too in the first part. G however did not share our view and really enjoyed the first part, and found the relationship between the boy and the older woman was tender and moving. L felt that maybe the flatness in the first part, and the straightforward narration throughout may have been down to the translation. P and G did not notice any difference with it being a translation at all. P felt the narrative style added to Michaels honesty in retelling the story and L agreed.
All of us found the accounts of the Holocaust during the trial had a great effect on us, but we were also moved by the love story, particularly the latter parts of it. As it was a while since G read it, he could not remember specifics about the characters, except that it presented a lot of complex questions about how humans behave. P 'never felt that [Hanna] was a monster' and all of us felt some sympathy for her. We all felt that this was the books greatest strength, presenting a well documented part of history as 'shades of grey' instead of black and white. G said that 'the questioning of morality and the manner in which it is told is one of the highlights of my literary life'.
All of us have kept certain scenes or images with us after finishing the book, most notably the images of the burning church, the conversation between Michael and his father, and the later meeting between Michael and Hanna. P also found the turbulance of the early relationship stayed in her mind, and for G it was the beauty of it. P really liked the details that the book went into, especially 'when it came to relationships and the difficulties of love'.
All of us felt that the book was trying to present a different view of the events in Germany during the war and this was why it was important. P felt it was also giving an 'insight into relationships and the challenges that come with them, whether it's between two lovers or two family members'. L agreed because Michael not only talks about Hanna, but his relationship with his parents in post-war Germany. P mentioned that Michael and Hanna are 'quite isolated people' and this adds to the level of how moving the story is as it develops.
P and L have also read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak recently and so comparisons were natural with both being about the Holocaust. Both totally enjoyed The Book Thief and P said it has 'become one of my favourite books' so it was interesting to compare the two. P and L agreed that they were extremely different, and 'both very moving'. P felt they had 'touched me in different ways'. L felt that her emotions were more dramatic in The Book Thief but also anticipated much more. Although L cried buckets with the former, it is because she did not expect any tears from The Reader, when they came she felt more surprised by it and also by the parts of the book that caused them. P felt that both books gave 'very human and honest accounts of events that happened during the war' and she feels that 'this is why they were both so easy and enjoyable to read'.
P and L now want to see the film. G felt that the film would be interesting but did not say if he was planning to see it.
Many thanks from L to P and G for taking part and sharing their views on this novel. The Reader is a great book to start a discussion because of its content and style. It has been excellent to share views in this way and I love talking about books generally.
See below for my (L's) full review or click here.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Quite a few people at work have been reading this one so I jumped at the chance to borrow it when a colleague offered it to me, so that we could compare thoughts afterwards. It is a very quick read, even for me, and there is a lot of talk about it generally with the film doing well at the moment.

Translated from its original German, and set in Germany, it is a novel of 3 parts, told in retrospect by the male lead.

Part 1 focuses on the young 15 year old Michael Berg, who embarks on a troubled but passionate affair with an older woman, Hanna, who gets him to read to her. Completely smitten, Michael obsesses in the way first love can override all else, even sensibility. Hanna, who does not seem phased by his age, is more complex, seeming to have feelings for him, but behaving elusively, eventually disappearing, suddenly, leaving Michael heartbroken.

Part 2 is some years later, when Michael is a history student, sent to another town to research a trial that is taking place, where the accused are charged, having been concentration camp guards during the war, with murder, by leaving a large group of women prisoners to die in a church fire when they had the means to let them out. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.

Part 3 examines the aftermath of the trial, which you should all read for yourselves.

This story is told simply and is very easy to read, but the themes and emotions that it evokes are far from simple. Apart from being an incredibly moving love story, this novel points out that nothing is black and white. The feelings of both characters are on display here. Michael mainly because he narrates it and is very honest about his feelings for Hanna, and his own inherited guilt complexes, being a second generation German dealing with the burden of being the nation who murdered so many innocents. He also eloquantly examines the causes for Hanna's life choices too. He does not offer excuses, he just presents the story to us so that we have to sift through the many grey area's that can form anyone's life. We can all make bad choices, and very often things are not as straight forward as they seem.

It has taken a long time for the more complicated view to be aired I think. They say history is always written by the winning side, and finally it feels safe to examine, and I do not mean to condone, the actions of some of the people who were caught up in the cruelties of Nazi Germany during WWII. This book has also given a voice to the second generation Germans who were abhorred by the Holocaust.

This is a novel that presents more questions than offers answers. I felt conflicting emotions towards both characters, I did not feel that either were evil or inherantly bad, even though both make contraversial choices. I did feel that they were human, with all the complexities that goes with that. And I was incredibly moved, especially during the last 2 parts. There are some scenes that have stayed with me since I have finished it (the description of the church fire, the conversation between Michael and his father, the meeting years later with Hanna). These are continuing to evoke emotion in me, and I feel that this is due to the strength of the writing. While there are many many excellent Holocaust stories, this one is an unexpected voice among them, no less skilled. An alternative. The question is are we ready to allow such a voice. Maybe not for everyone, but it should be read, widely. This is why this book is important.
I would like to now see the film.

This book would be perfect for readers groups and there is a reading guide here.

Also there is a link here to check out how it was made into a film.

Next week I hope to correlate the thoughts of my colleagues who have also read the book for #10 of the 2009 mini challenges.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

February Roundup

These cute little woollen hearts kick us off for St. Valentines month, the month of love, and I thought a link to the poems of Christina Rossetti would be appropriate because her love poems are very romantic in an English Victorian way.
It has been quite a full month for my reading life too...
Read - almost 2 and a half books.
Completed - Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays and Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris.
Currently - reading The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.
TBR pile - has grown immensely this month, now at 57 books...
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier
The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The Turning of the Screw by Henry James
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Zig Zag Way by Anita Desai
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
and the non-fictional Novel Destinations and
Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Challenge updates - I completed #1, #2 and #9 of the 2009 mini challenges, and I am up to page 167 of 1000 (on schedule), of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a personal challenge to read 3 pages a day to finish it in a year.
Discoveries - Five Dials Magazine and also 52 short stories, the website displaying a new short story every week, both courtesy of RobAroundBooks
Wishlist additions -
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
Rain by Kirsty Gunn
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Events -
The Book Swap at work (click here)
Seeing a musical stage version of Great Expectations at the Theatr Clwyd near Mold.
On we go into March, hopefully a little warmer for all of us. It is already a pleasure to see the Crocus and Daffodils up, and some of the blossom trees flowering.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye