Monthly Archives: January 2013

Other People’s Bookshelves #8: Sylvie aka Sly Wit

This week we get to have a good old nosey around the bookshelves of Sylvie, who some of you will probably know better as her blogging alias Sly Wit. As it says on her blog she is “half American, half French, and all-around opinionated”, which she thinks pretty much sums her up, but I think you need more than that. She grew up in New England, studied finance in college, and then worked briefly in investment consulting. However, soon realized that wasn’t really for her and going back to school. After doing time in both New York and Paris, completing her Ph.D. in French Studies and teaching classes in everything from British politics to French literature and film, se left academia about five years ago to move to San Francisco and work in textbook publishing as a development editor in French and Italian. She now works as a freelance editor. She is an avid reader, runs a book salon and blogs regularly at Sly Wit, you can also find her, less regularly, at Worth the Detour, where she documents her quest to visit all the U.S. national parks and other travel adventures. So now to the shelves and finding out even more….

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

When I moved from the east coast to California five years ago, I gave away over half my books (shock! horror!) and now most of my reading comes from the library, so a book has to be really good to be on my shelves. More importantly, it has to look good. That’s right, the first question and it’s already confession-time: I care far too much about the aesthetic look of my bookshelves! They are hyper-organized, certain colours are better than others (and yes, I am tempted to weed out favourites that have ugly spines), and most books are in excellent condition.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Where to begin? Fiction is in the living room and generally divided into English and French, and then alphabetical by author, and then chronologically by title within each author (hyper-organized, remember?). The shelves in the hall are grouped according to subject, with books from my days as a professor grouped chronologically within subjects (French history, French language and culture, Franco-American relations, national film industries, film criticism) and then other subjects by whatever makes sense for that subject (travel, bande dessinée, children’s books, philosophy and religion, poetry). I also have a number of reference materials for my work as an editor. I try to cull at least once a year.

Fiction Hallway 2

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

One of the first books I remember buying myself was a boxed set of Sherlock Holmes at a tag sale. They had great covers. Unfortunately, they were well loved when I bought them and I read them multiple times, so they eventually fell apart. For my last re-read, I took them along with me on a trip to Brazil and left one book behind (held together with a rubber band) at each place I stayed.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

No guilty pleasures per se, but the paperbacks I pick up here and there (from work, friends, and library sales) that don’t meet the ‘standards’ of the shelves, end up in the hidden tbr pile by my bed to eventually be given away to the library. In fact, I was thinking my book challenge this year would be to read them or lose them at the end of the year.

Holmes and Christie double-stacked

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

My most prized possession is the complete set of Agatha Christies that I started collecting in high school. It took me over seven years of dutifully sending in a check once-a-month to Bantam Books to receive the entire collection of faux-leather hardbacks. Sadly, since there are 81 volumes, there is no way I could save them in a fire. I’m afraid all efforts and first instincts would probably mean that my childhood companion (a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh) would emerge from any blaze.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My parents didn’t really have books I considered too grown-up for me or that I aspired to read, but, in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, I do remember sneaking Judy Blume’s first adult book, Wifey, out of the library and keeping it hidden under my bed while I read it. This was after my friends and I had already passed around Forever (her book on teen sex) at school. The only book I currently have by Judy Blume is my original copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

No, most of my current reading comes from the library and I’m generally fine with not owning those books. Most new additions to my shelves are practical—usually cookbooks, travel guides, or second-hand books about San Francisco. However…

Booze and books

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

After reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving for my readers’ choice book challenge, I decided to buy a matching set of three Irving favourites. Because, yes, I like books by the same authors to match (see above re: organizing and aesthetic issues).

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

More classic favourites probably, especially older or interesting editions, or if part of the clothbound classics series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. She does fabulous covers. [Simon, you should take a look at the set she did for Sherlock Holmes: http://www.cb-smith.com/]. I keep meaning to replace a collected works of Edgar Allan Poe that I loaned out and never got it back. And I’m always on the lookout for a good book on opera, a newfound passion of mine.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I think they might wonder why I have so little fiction, and almost no contemporary works. However, although my shelves don’t represent my reading now, they are very much filled with books that represent either my life story (my dual citizenship and work as a historian/editor) or my taste, with favourite authors such as Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and Émile Zola as well as all-time favourite books like Cold Comfort Farm, Théophile Gautier’s Récits fantastiques, The Lord of the Rings, and Rebecca.

Hallway 1

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A big thank you to Sylvie for letting me grill her. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Sylvie’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

I am wondering, though maybe after yesterdays post I should be careful what I say here, if there is a genre to describe when an author writes their book about writing their book, be it in a fictional or non fictional way? Is it simply metafiction? This is part of what Alejandro Zambra’s latest English PEN winning novel, if that is the right term, ‘Ways of Going Home’ does and I have also seen this in a recent Graham Greene read and ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet, a book that I need to get back to. It is a style that I find I liked and wasn’t expecting when I picked this latest book up completely by whim – it was the cover that did the trick, though I was in the mood for a book and author I knew nothing about; we all get that craving now and again don’t we? This appealed because I know little about Chilean fiction and I also want to read more translated fiction. All boxes ticked then!

**** Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 139 pages, translated byMegan McDowell, kindly sent unsolicited by the publisher

‘Ways of Going Home’ opens during at time of both a political time of unease and natural physical concerns in Chile. General Pinochet is dictator of the country and there is murder and torture going on, oblivious to this, initially, is a young unnamed boy who is camping out on the streets as the Santiago has been hit by an earthquake. On that night the boy meets a mysterious girl called Claudia who he becomes infatuated with and who asks him to spy on his neighbour who turns out to be her cousin. The boy doesn’t know why but does it, and we are left to work it out ourselves.

Suddenly though we are drawn out of that narrative to find that we are now in the mind of the author who himself is writing about a young boy who meets a mysterious girl called Claudia on the night of an earthquake. Is this in fact a fictionalisation of his childhood of relative safety under the rule of a dictator that he is looking back on and dealing with the guilt of coming away from such a time so apparently easy? Well the thing is we are never really sure and this adds intrigue along to an already very interesting premise. Is the boy therefore really Zambra? Is the ‘writer’ that we meet? We are never really sure, either way Zambra uses this double narrative and fictional hindsight, as it seems to be, to look at a man’s thoughts at that slightly naive time in youth and then now with adult eyes.

“Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.”

The fact this second section, which alternates with the younger aspect again once more in this very short book (which is actually Zambra’s longest at 139 pages), then comes into play made the book doubly intriguing for me. I found this ‘fictional narrators’ reaction of guilt at not being a victim of Pinochet oddly fascinating though I did feel that this reaction in itself highlighted to me that no one in a country where such things are going on ever comes away with an easy mind. Zambra’s writer, and therefore Zambra either way that you look at it (though it can hurt your head), also discusses how writing and reading deal with these things also.

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

As much as ‘Ways of Going Home’ looks at the Pinochet regime in Chile and how it affected the country afterwards, how hingsight comes into play, how children of the murdered and murderers going to school together etc. It is also a book about the importance, and indeed the power, of books and the relationship between reader and writer and fictional and the non fictional. It is a book that leaves you with a long list of other books to read and plenty to go away and think about and discover more on too.

Has anyone else read this novel and what did you make of it? Are Zambra, the boy and the fictional author all one and the same? Has anyone else read any of Zambra’s other works? If they are as interesting as this one I will have to seek them out.

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Filed under Alejandro Zambra, Books in Translation, Granta Books, Review

‘New Adult’ Fiction; What is the Point?

One of the many things that I love about recording The Readers every week, with Gavin of Gav Reads, is that it makes me think about (and in this case have a rant about) things that I wouldn’t expect it to. This week Gavin wanted to talk about the genre of ‘New Adult’ fiction, I have to admit I knew very little about it to be honest and so I went off and did some research. Having done so I have to admit that my main thought with it is… What is the point of ‘New Adult’ as a genre?

If we use the trusted source (my tongue is slightly tickling my cheek here) Wikipedia for a definition then it is “New-adult Fiction or post-adolescent literature is a recent category of fiction for young adults first proposed by St. Martin’s Press in 2009.St. Martin’s Press editors wanted to address the coming-of-age that also happens in a young person’s twenties. They wanted to consider stories about young adults who were legally adults, but who were still finding their way in building a life and figuring out what it means to be an adult.” What is all the more interesting/odd is that the age range for this new type of genre is according to several sources the age range of 14 – 35.

Now we will slightly gloss over my main issue that this is a genre simply created by some marketing people in a publishing house to sell more books which is no bad thing, until you see some of the quality of some of the books and the sort of stories they are. Snobbish? Maybe! It seems like a cash cow and one which I find a mixture of patronizing and perturbing.

My first concern is that the first book which has been published as a ‘new adult’ novel is Tammara Webber’s ‘Easy’, which starts with the protagonist of the book getting raped. I am aware this happens in the world and that younger people need to be taught the hardships of life (though in my day it was being taught about death by being bought a hamster or goldfish that would invariably pop it’s clogs in a month or two) but at the age of fourteen, really? This for me becomes all the more disconcerting as apparently the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy has now, along with ‘Twilight’ but not Harry Potter, been put into this category. Do we really want anyone, not just girls, under the age of 18 reading books with graphic sex in them, regardless of the tin of S&M worms that come opened with it? Weren’t we all calling these books ‘Mummy Porn’ just months ago, now because we are so stupid forward thinking and ‘out there’ let’s pass it on to some youths. I am inwardly groaning as I type. I am not a prude but this does all just seem wrong.

The question is what next? Will the ‘Mummy Porn’ become a genre alongside ‘Tragic Life Stories’ (groan) and ‘New Adult’ (I have just seen how appropriate that title is for books that seem to technically be Baby Black Lace/Black Lace for Beginners), will there be a ‘Ready Meal for One/Spinster/Lonely Man in a Cardigan/Eternal Bachelor Fic’ to run alongside ‘Romance’? Will I be dashing to buy from the ‘True Tales of Animals Daring Do’s’ shelves? Will ‘Grey Fiction’ suddenly take off? The mind boggles, though if any of those do become ‘the latest thing’ I want royalties.

Also what annoys me about it is that those publishers pushing this genre are actually closing off a world of books to people rather than opening the eyes of many to more wonderful books. Are we all going to have to follow the same reading trajectory? You start with picture books, then children’s books, then YA, then NA, then ‘fiction’ and that is the only option? What happened to just getting to an age where you read what you want? For me, who is from a generation prior even to YA (yes I am that old), it was a case of reading from Robin Jarvis to Patrick Suskind, possibly via some Point Horror, because I just naturally progressed at my own pace in my teens. Are the ‘New Adult’ book police going to stop my 14 year old sister from her current read of ‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (no she really is) or make my 13 year old cousin stop reading Charles Dickens and C.J Sansom because apparently he isn’t ready for them yet, instead handing them ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to have a think about as that is what they should be reading at their age? Erm, no thank you! It all seems preposterous to me. And what about YA is this defunct, down graded or what?

Is this 'NA' or is it 'YA' or simply just fiction?

Is this ‘NA’ or is it ‘YA’ or simply just fiction?

That said, as this is a rather one way set of thoughts on the genre I have recently got a ‘New Adult’ book, though it was just in ‘Fiction’, from the library in the form of ‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott. I thought I really should try one of the books from the genre I am writing off a) to see what I make of it b) see if really it is just fiction or YA under an addition unnecessary pigeon hole c) because Jessica of Prose and Cons Book Club (who I love and wish blogged every day, no pressure) loved this tale of crazy evil cheerleaders and it might be a laugh. I will report back, I might end up eating my hat, or I might find out this ‘New Adult’ tag is just a bonkers new genre that need not be, we will see.

As you might have noticed this subject has brought out the rant filled part of me, which you can actually here in the last section of The Readers this week, and I could go on all day. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on it. Regular readers of this blog of course, but also some of the NA lovers out there and maybe even some of their authors. So what do you think about NA, am I just being a grumpy old git or what?

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Novel Insights on Savidge Reads #1

A few weeks ago I was a little bit gutted when the lovely Polly of Novel Insights decided that she wanted to give up blogging, especially seeing as I nagged and nagged and nagged for her to start one in the first place – see I tell lots of people they should start a blog. Anyway I felt the blogosphere would miss Polly’s ‘novel insights’ into the books she has been reading and so I have bribed her (the things I know after twenty seven years being friends) to come and do a monthly post on Savidge Reads of the books she has been reading and rather enjoying. So I will hand you over to her, make her welcome, let us know what you think of what she has been reading and I am sure she will comment back when she can. Hoorah. Oh and watch out for my interjections, ha!

Hello Savidge Readers!

As this is my first guest post, let me start by introducing myself. Until recently I wrote a blog called Novel Insights which ran for four years. You might have read it, or heard of it on here, or just heard Simon mention me, as we have been best friends since we were playing He-man and She-ra as little kids. (Oh my god Polly, I am the one with all the secrets and all the power – of Grayskull!)

Anyway… at the end of last year I decided that I didn’t want a whole blog to myself for reasons I noted down in my final post. It was definitely the right decision for me, but also rather poignant. Imagine my delight when Simon offered me a guest spot on the wonderful Savidge Reads. I couldn’t refuse…

Onto reading (isn’t that why we are all here? I think Polly meant to add… apart from Simon’s stunning wit and delightful manner). I recently read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for book group in December. I won’t go into too much detail about it as it seems a little unseasonable this side of the New Year, but I will say that everyone should read it. Its short (so no excuses), is told in the most remarkably warm and witty voice (you can almost hear Dickens having little jokes with himself now and then), and is sinister but still charms the reader with beautiful vignettes of Victorian life. I have also just finished The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey but I will wait to review that until after it’s been discussed at book group!

Today I’m reviewing Moranthology by Caitlin Moran and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

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Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I was first introduced to Caitlin Moran when I read her entertaining take on feminism – How to Be A Woman which was so funny that I chuckled out loud to myself more than once in public. Similarly Moranthology caused me to laugh so violently on London Transport that I could barely stop myself from crying and had to turn away to face the door to try to re-arrange my face!

Moranthology is a collection of her best columns which she has curated around favourite topics. She has an opinion on everything from solving the world economic crisis to Lady Gaga and delivers it with her own very personal style.

In any collection inevitably there are articles you love more than others. I have to say that although I find her obsession with BBC TV’s Sherlock funny but I haven’t seen it so couldn’t really relate to those articles. I felt maybe I should watch it, but then she also loves Dr Who and I just can’t get into it. What do you guys think? Anyway I digress….as usual…!

I zoomed through this collection and was thoroughly entertained. Some of the more serious stories gave me pause for thought. With A Christmas Carol still in my mind, I get the feeling that she and Dickens if they had had the chance to chat may have shared some opinions on society and public welfare.

Her tone is so personal, my guess is that you will either love or hate her writing – I obviously fall into the ‘love it’ category. This is because she is funny, observant and unapologetic about her views. She is also up-front about being occasionally quite annoying and self-indulgent (for instance, waking her husband up to ask how he would remember her if she tragically died early – what woman hasn’t done something similar!?). In other words she’s human and entertaining and it makes me wonder why I don’t read more ‘funny’ books.

Oh and I tweeted her about my laughing incident and hurrah – she replied – look, look!

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So she’s nice too. Read her.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I downloaded A Monster Calls on my Kindle (oh you filty, filthy…) after reading Simon’s Books of 2012. I was attracted to read it partly because of the beautiful illustrations and because it seemed like a dark fairytale of sorts, saying something (as all good fairytales do) important about the human condition.

Conor O’Malley is the focus of the novel. A thirteen year old boy, struggling with the knowledge that his mother is sick with cancer, he is frightened, angry and unable to talk about what is happening which leaves him isolated at school and at home. In his dreams he is visited by a monster, who appears to him in the form of the ancient yew tree at the bottom of his garden. However, the monster is not the real nightmare, he dreams of something much worse that he cannot bear to put into words.

I have slightly mixed feelings about A Monster Calls. I think it’s a very accomplished book and as Simon commented, the book deals with a difficult subject in a wholly original and effective way. The one issue I had with it was that sometimes I didn’t quite click with the writing style. Perhaps it’s because it’s primarily targeted to the Young Adult market so I felt very aware that it was trying to convey something to me – I felt a bit hand-held. I think my expectations were very high because of how well recommended. That was my only minor complaint.

It lived up to my impression of the dark fairytale however. What a fantastic creation the yew tree monster is – frightening and wise at the same time. He is neither wholly good nor wholly bad and challenges Conor’s ideas of life, forcing him to consider that people and their actions are often not what they seem. Even though it has a magical edge, the book has its feet firmly planted in reality. The characters in the book were all so easy to imagine and relate to. Conor could occasionally be a quite unlikeable, but this is part of what makes the book realistic. Let’s face it people who are dealing with terrible things often are not that nice to be around. The illustrations in the book are beautiful and atmospheric – making me a little sad to be experiencing them on a Kindle and not in print!

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So that’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed my temporary takeover of Savidge Reads. Do read excellent Simon’s review of ‘A Monster Calls’ and I suspect that he might be posting about ‘Moranthology’ as well at some point! Indeed I shall be as I am dipping into it, and chortling a lot, at the moment between other books and when I have only a few minutes to read something.

Until next time… farewell x Px

A big thanks to Polly for a lovely post. Do let her and I know what you think of the books she (and I, we are like book twins) have read. Oh and Polly forgot to mention she is off to the Phillipines at the end of the week and maybe you could give her some holiday reading recommendations too?

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Filed under Caitlin Moran, Novel Insights on Savidge Reads, Patrick Ness

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I am beginning to think that my little faux pas that Edith Wharton was one of the UK’s canon authors, when deciding on the six authors for ‘Classically Challenged’ with AJ, was actually a twist of fate and an accidental moment of brilliance. While I liked Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and enjoyed Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (let us gloss over Trollope’s ‘The Warden’) I have to say that ‘The House of Mirth’ simply surpasses them for me by a long stretch and has been the first to set me alight. I think it is probably going to become one of my favourite novels of all time and has reminded me what joys there are in the classics and forget the side that makes you feel like you are back at school. Now though I have the nightmare task of trying to write my thoughts on this book which I know will never really do it justice. Gulp!

***** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1905 (2008 edition), fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In New York in the late 1800’s Lily Bart, at the ripe old age of twenty nine, is in the time of her life where she needs to find a husband. She has had many good seasons living with her rich friends of high society, which is quite miraculous as she herself is made of limited means and no fortune yet Lily is wily. We follow her on her quest to find a husband and the gambles she takes not only with her meagre allowance and cards but in the society she keeps and how she plays them and they play her.

Edith Wharton does some wondrous things in this novel. Firstly Wharton marvellously creates an overview of society at the time. As we meet her Lily actually spends most of her time living off her incredibly wealthy friends. Of course nothing comes for free. It is Lily’s beauty, wit and ability to seem fascinated by anyone and everyone whilst having them fascinated by her that gets her in with the right set. Keeping them as friends and on side however is the really tricky part and one that anyone would find hard to pull off. Lily knows that if she marries someone with utmost wealth she could have everyone at her bidding and the life she has always felt she is her due. This was the plight of many women at the time. When not living off friends though, Lily finds herself living off an aunt, Mrs Penistone, who took her because no one else would after her mother’s death. This relationship I think has a real psychological affect on Lily. She doesn’t want to owe anyone, apart from a husband, anything nor does she want to end up like many of the spinsters that her aunt knows, working in factories and living in boarding houses.

The second wonderful thing about ‘The House of Mirth’ is Lily Bart herself. Lily isn’t really likeable and yet we do like her. She has airs and graces above her station and yet she is witty and does care about people, well overall if we give her the benefit of the doubt. She is the creation of a society at the time along with the aspirations left upon her by her mother’s influence from a young age. There is a real sense of sadness and tragedy underlying her beauty and charm however and I think it is this that while we might not always think she is behaving as we would or correctly makes us like her and root for her all the same. For those of you who have read the book it was her behaviour with a certain collection of letters that showed her true character I felt.

With so much going on it is takes a deft writer to throw in another strand to the story and Wharton does this by introducing, from the very start in a brilliant set of paragraphs where he describes Miss Bart so we are left in no doubt as to her looks and personality, the character of Lawrence Selden. This is another master stroke. He is by no means a rich man having been forced to do the thing that everyone in Lily’s set dreads, work. As a lawyer the rich think he might be useful someday and indeed some of the rich married women of high society, like Bertha Dorset, find his handsome charms might just be the thing to provide some light relief in their lives or all sorts. There is a tension and chemistry between Lily and Selden however, though neither of them really wants it as both know that Lily ideally needs to marry for money, being a woman of no stature. Yet this friction and their love hate relationship are part of what we follow throughout.

‘Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.’
She shook her head wearily. ‘I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out – I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.’

Their sparing with each other show what Lily is really thinking or planning and why. Also through Selden’s eyes we get this rather brutal and pitying look on Lily and the monster she threatens to become. This was another of the things I loved about this book; the ability of Wharton to flip between Lily’s perception of things and then to the perceptions others have of Lily and her actions, these perceptions of course being based on whether the person has sympathy for Lily or is in some way her rival or superior. This also highlights the calculating nature of a certain group of women, who Wharton was clearly aware of at the time, from the destroyer such as Bertha Dorset and indeed our own Lily in her calculations of how to get a suitably rich husband or live off others, whichever the case may be.

It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly-acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor the patience to affect his capture. She was too self-engrossed to penetrate the recesses of his shyness, and besides, why should she care to give herself the trouble? At most it might amuse her to make sport of his simplicity for an evening–after that he would be merely a burden to her, and knowing this, she was far too experienced to encourage him. But the mere thought of that other woman, who could take a man up and toss him aside as she willed, without having to regard him as a possible factor in her plans, filled Lily Bart with envy. She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’

‘The House of Mirth’ is a real unflinching and honest lifting of the lid on society and how it worked just before the turn of the 20th century in America and you feel Wharton new exactly what was going on no holes barred. She also looks at the interesting divide of old money and new money and how the latter felt they had to win the other over until the Wall Street crash when roles were reversed. Here the initially, to Lily, odious Mr Simon Rosedale suddenly becomes the man everyone wants to know and many women want to wed. There are so many layers, sub plots and characters to the book I could go on all day, so I shall bring myself to a close and surmise.

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Having had some space from the book and time to mull it over there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

Who else has read ‘The House of Mirth’ and what did you think? Did anyone else (without any spoilers please) see the end coming? What about Bertha Dorset, did anyone loathe her as much as I found myself doing? Did anyone else think that Selden was a bit of an ineffectual wet lettuce? Which other works of Wharton’s have you read, as I now want to get them all, and you would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Classically Challenged, Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, Review

The Savidge Reads Hall of Fame… Muriel Spark

Time to introduce my third author into, the rather grandly titled, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame. Muriel Spark is an author I have been reading longer than I have been blogging all thanks to the lovely Polly of Novel Insights, who will be doing a series of monthly guest posts here soon, and how much she used to praise Spark’s works and made me finally take the plunge when she chose ‘Aiding and Abetting’ for a book group we had at an old workplace. Since then, with the exception of a few books, which I think I need to re-read as I didn’t ‘get’ on a first read, I have thoroughly enjoyed every Spark novel that I have read, all the more when her wicked wit and wry knowing prose are at their most extreme.

The first book I read by her was‘Aiding and Abetting’ oddly starting with one of Spark’s later books and one that was based on a true tale which she ‘took great liberties with’.

The reason that I initially read her was… As I mentioned above, the lovely Polly of Novel Insights chose Spark’s penultimate book for a book group we had where we both worked. I admired the tale, based on two men thinking they were the infamous Lord Lucan and a fraudulent psychiatrist, because of the fact she did so much in a relatively small book. I also really liked the dark humour and knowing nature her prose had.

The reason that she has become one of my favourite authors, and I would recommend them, is… I really like the fact that I never know what I am going to get with Spark, I think she keeps her readers on their toes and also throws in a twist or element that you were never expecting. I love the fact she can write fully fledged characters, back and splintering stories and create an entire world within very few pages – she isn’t an author who needs to say a paragraph when she can do it in a sentence. I also love the wicked sense of humour she has and the darker levels that always brood in the background of each tale.

My favourite of her novels so far has been… Without question ‘The Driver’s Seat’. One of her shortest novels but one that actually made me gasp at the sting in the tail of it which I never saw coming. It is a book that packs a huge punch for such a short novel and one that I think everyone should read. Though I always like to savor an authors works to the end, hence why ‘Memento Mori’ will have to wait patiently in the TBR as I have heard that it is meant to be one of her best and darkest.

If there was one of her works I had a wobble with, it would have to be… Oddly enough the book I have had the biggest wobble with is probably her most famous. I really didn’t get ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at all when I read it. It was my second read of hers and I wasn’t sure afterwards if I would give her another whirl. Polly wisely said that I should try another and maybe come back to it at a later point. I did try more and loved them so Polly was wise and I do think I will give ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ another try one day. I am now intrigued what it was about it I didn’t like or didn’t understand.

The most recent one of her novels that I read was… ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ one of the far too many of her books that are no longer in print, which I think is an absolute crying shame. This was a wonderful tale of some rather crazy nuns (the film adaptation is aptly called ‘Nasty Habits’) and is a satire of the Watergate scandal, that said you don’t need to know anything about to enjoy it though – in fact I avoided knowing about it so I didn’t equate the fictional nuns with real politicians. It was Muriel at her sparklingly wickedest and I would highly recommend you try and track down.

The next of Muriel Spark’s works I am planning on reading is… I quite fancy reading some of her short stories, of which there are many, though I don’t own any of them so that would require shopping. Gran, who is also a fan, is always saying that I should read ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’ so that could be a future read, though I have a lovely old hardback of ‘Do Not Disturb’ which I quite fancy. It is alas another of her books that now seems out of print but you can often find her books in many a second hand bookshop and they have some fabulous old kitsch covers.

What I would love her to do next is… Alas Muriel Spark died six years ago. I would have loved to have been able to have had her partake in a Savidge Reads Grills, though I think that would have been something I could only have dreamt of. I have plenty of her books still to read though.

You can see a full list of Muriel Spark’s works on the Savidge Reads Hall of Fame page, a special page on the blog especially for my favourite authors and links to the books of theirs I have read and reviewed and the ones I haven’t as yet. This will encourage me to read all the books by my favourite authors and may lead you to some new authors if you like most of the ones that I like, if that makes sense. There are some rules though, but you can find more of those on the Hall of Fame page too.

So who else is a Muriel Spark fan? Which of her novels have you read and loved? Are you yet to try her?

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame

The Abbess of Crewe – Muriel Spark

As I mentioned last week whilst visiting Gran’s I always pack far too many books for the length of time I am there. I also have to plan which ones to take which sort of defeats my aim of reading by whim on the whole this year. However Gran has a vast selection of books in her house and perusing this actual gave me some short treats to read while I was there, one of which was ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by the wonderful Muriel Spark, subtitled ‘a wicked satire on Watergate’. How could I not read this when it so explicitly mixed Muriel Spark and wickedness?

**** Penguin Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, 104 pages, nabbed from Gran’s bookshelves

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is told in a rather strange way, as the book opens we find the Abbess and one of her nuns Sister Winifrede deep in a hinted discussion that they may have done something untoward which, as we read on, might relate to the reason that policemen and police dogs are patrolling the grounds of the abbey. You aren’t sure what is going on but then you flit back between now and the repercussions and what actually happened.

As we read on, though I don’t want to give too much away, it turns out that the whole abbey has been under observations with phones tapped along with hidden video cameras and microphones (even in the fur trees in the grounds) and which have been discovered around the recent election of the new abbess herself against her rival Sister Felicity.

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’
Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –‘
‘Silence!’ says the Abbess.  ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening.’

Here I am sure a more intellectual blogger might allude to, or indeed inform you of, how this all relates to the Watergate Scandal. I admit, partly because I felt that I should, I did go and read a bit about the whole affair though I then decided against it as I found myself trying to work out which characters in the book were in the real political scandal, and it started to take the fun out of reading about these barmy nuns instead. So I stopped. This does show that you don’t need to know of the Watergate Scandal to enjoy the book as Spark creates one of her most Machiavellian female leads in ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and a wonderful cast of cloaked characters around her.

I thought Felicity, the Abbesses main rival initially, was a wonderful character. Some people would say she was a ‘new nun’ in the fact that she is devoted in depth to God and also to free love, the latter of which she is having with a Jesuit monk called Thomas around the grounds as often as she can. This of course causes talk, I laughed very loudly when one of the nuns said she didn’t understand why on earth she didn’t do it in the linen closet where it’s warmer, and threatens to change the vision of the convent and abbey that many people, mainly the abbess, have for it. If one nun turns bad and gets away with it surely others may to and there could be a revolt.

‘Nobody knows where Felicity has been all day and half the night, for she was not present at Matins at midnight nor Lauds at three in the morning, nor at breakfast at five, Prime at six, Terce at nine; nor was she present in the refectory at eleven for lunch, which comprised barley broth and a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk. Felicity had not been there to partake of it, nor was she in the chapel singing the Hour of Sext at noon.’

I also loved Mildred and Winifrede who remain hard done by and a little bit ditzy throughout. There was also the wonderful Sister Gertrude who phoned often from one of her many missions around the world, such as trying to unite cannibals and vegetarian tribes on either side of a Himalayan mountain, to talk philosophical gibberish which never made sense and yet seemed to make the other sisters suddenly do very rash things. There are also some wonderful set pieces like a meeting of a nun to pay a bribe in a Selfridge’s toilet and much, much more.

It seems a shame then that ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is out of print. I do wonder if it is because people might think it has aged or will seem aged being a satire of Watergate. It seems a real same if that is the case as for a little book, at just 104 pages, it gives a lot, I ended up wishing it was a lot longer though. There was a lot of very wicked laughter for me throughout ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and it had some of my most favourite characters Spark has created so far in my reading of her. I also think it is one where her wicked sense of humour, which I love so much, shines through most devilishly.

Who else has read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and if so what did you think? Did you find you had to read all about Watergate or like me did you just enjoy it regardless? Which of Sparks’s books have you read and enjoyed? Oh and if you haven’t as yet one of her most famous ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (which oddly isn’t my favourite though it is deemed her classic) is current Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review