Category Archives: Vintage Classics

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors that I had always meant to read and yet somehow not quite got round to actually trying. Yes, I know. Gran used to go on and on about how amazing For Whom the Bell Tolls was and after reading Naomi Wood’s marvellous Mrs. Hemingway I was even more keen to give him a whirl at some point. As it happened Rachael chose The Old Man and the Sea for book group which I was both excited by (as I had meant to read him and it was a novella, so a quick intro) and wary of (because as we all know I don’t like books set on boats) before I started. Yet the whole point of a good book group is that it gets you reading things you mightn’t normally, and so I got on board…

Vintage Books, paperback, 1951 (1999 edition), fiction, 112 pages, bought by myself for myself

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders to another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea pretty much gives you the premise of the book straight from the off. There is an old man, who used to be quite the fisherman we gather, who now lives alone and hasn’t caught a fish in ages. He used to have a young man help him who still visits, and gives a wonderful and touching start to novella, yet now the locals believe he brings bad luck and so he goes out by himself though less and less. Upon waking one day he has the feeling his luck might be changing like the tide (just to through a seaside metaphor in there, there’s a fair few in the book) and so sets out to catch a big fish, hopefully the biggest that he can.

This makes The Old Man and the Sea sound both like a tale of adventure and one of adversity, an old man in his slightly knackered boat, going out to catch a blooming big fish and show those youths he still has it in him. Indeed in many ways it is, and I liked that feeling despite my aversion to boats and sure enough pretty soon fell in love (I wanted to say hook, line and sinker – sorry) with the prose. With sentences like this…

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

Or this…

Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.

… How can you not? Sometimes, sadly no matter how wonderful the words, if you aren’t quite lost in a book it loses its charm and fairly soon after we had set sail I started to get rather disinterested. I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that whilst I spent a lot of time with the old man and occasionally in his head, as Hemingway flips between perspectives now and then, Hemmingway holds of telling you exactly what he’s thinking or feeling outside catching a bloody massive sea monster of a fish. He remainssome sort of unknowable figure with little characterisation therefore meaning I didn’t care about his plight or quest. The second issue was that no matter how much beautiful writing there was at the start, and indeed again at the end, it all seemed to be rather flat and monotonous in the middle making me somewhat bored. I can see how this may have been the idea, we had to wait patiently for ages while the old man does, yet there is a difference between being bored literally and being literally bored.

He was rowing steadily and it was no effort for him since he kept well within his speed and thethe surface of the ocean was flat except for the occasional swirls of the current. He was letting the current do a third of the work and as it started to be light he saw he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour.
I worked the deep wells for a week and did nothing, he thought. Today I’ll work out where the schools of bonita and albacore are and maybe there will be a big one with them.

That said when the old man finally encounters the big fish there are some rather exciting scenes where the old man must conquer both the nature of the sea and its other inhabitants. Be warned though, if you are a fan of fish for your dinner this may turn you, I haven’t fancied eating fish since I read it which was about two months ago. The Old Man and the Sea does encourage some interesting discussion; though we were divided about how much we liked it we had a really interesting conversation about whether this was a fable about adversity, as I mentioned above, or actually about greed – and it got slightly heated!

So did I like The Old Man and the Sea? Well, I am not really sure… kind of. If I was being very honest I think I would describe it as being an inoffensive and interesting-ish read. (It only won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, so what would I know!) I think the writing is wonderful, if sometimes a little lengthy even for a novella as it felt longer than it was. That said, it is certainly a book I won’t forget and not just for the fact I may never eat fish and chips again. As it was “Hemingway” I expected that I would be much more bowled over than I was and really needed more character and a little more back story. Maybe it’s not the best of his books to start with? Maybe I needed something meatier (rather than fishier – sorry again) to get my teeth into.

Who else has read The Old Man and the Sea and what did you make of it? If you fancy some more thoughts you can see Sanne of Books and Quills discuss it here, we seemed to be of a mind. As I am still keen to read more Hemingway where would you recommend I head next where I might have a little more success?

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Filed under Ernest Hemingway, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Rounding Up The Reviews #4; A Bumper Crop of Book Reviews Before 2014 Ends

So in an effort to combat my blog OCD panic, I like to have reviewed everything I have read in a year and start a year a fresh, and a backlog of reviews I thought I’d do a round up of some of the books – there are more to come – that I have read and wanted to share thoughts with you about – be they good, bad or indifferent. So no waffle, just some quick(ish) book reviews today…

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1938 (2000 edition), fiction, 240 pages, bought by my good self

I like Evelyn Waugh a lot and had heard marvellous things about Scoop from all the right people, so it had been on my ‘to read at some point’ list for quite some time when Rob chose it as a classic choice for Hear Read This! a few months ago. Sadly I really, really, really didn’t like it. The tale is one of mistaken identity as William Boot, who usually writes about things such as badgers and crested grebes, is sent in place of another journalist named Boot to the African state of Ishmaelia where he is to report for The Beat on a ‘very promising little war’.

By rights this book should have been completely up my street, a satire on the industry that I worked for (and hasn’t changed) for quite some time by an author I loved. I just found it deeply dated, rather boring, nothing new and actually a little bit (to put it mildly, I hate the excuse ‘of it’s time’) racist frankly. There were a few moments that I almost enjoyed but generally I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over. You can hear my thoughts along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1984 (1998 edition), fiction, 368 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

I have an interesting relationship with Carter’s writing, I either think it is utterly magical and wonderful or I just think it is rather bonkers verging on silly. Sophie Fevvers is famous around the world for supposedly being either part swan, with her amazing wings, or an utter fraud. Jack Waltzer, journalist, goes to interview her and find out not realising he is about to follow Sophie on quite the journey between nineteenth-century London, St Petersberg and Siberia. I found Nights at the Circus (again another book I have been meaning to read for ages and then my old book group chose it) to be a mixture of the two the whole way through, a romp I enjoyed yet occasionally didn’t get or felt went a bit too far magically and plot wise – what was Carter on?

Overall I enjoyed it immensely for its camp bonkers moments and gothic turns and eventually succumbed to its madness. Yet having finished it, I realised I didn’t have that much to say about it, I just enjoyed it overall which makes it sound more of a damp squib than I mean it to. I felt it should be a collection of short stories about Sophie rather than an adventure with her, if that makes sense? I think I wanted something like her fairy tales and didn’t get it; maybe I need to read it again?

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1939 (2000 edition), memoir, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

Like me, you may not know Saint-Exupery for anything other than The Little Prince and not for his stories, both fiction and none, of pilots and airborne adventures. Wind Sand and Stars is a nonfiction set of accounts of some of his flights from when he started in 1926 until and just passed the time in 1936 when he crashed in the desert and somehow survived. I have to say the idea of a book about planes excites me about as much, well maybe a bit more, as a book about boats BUT having loved Julian Barnes Levels of Life and its tales of ballooning and grief I was up for something new.

On one level, pun not intended, Wind Sand and Stars is a tale of one man and his first exciting, and often death defying, trips into the air. Now I don’t like flying but I could completely understand, through his writing, how Antoine became addicted. The descriptions of the freedom and the awe it gives is rather contagious. I also found the story of the crash to be a genuinely terrifying then thrilling reading experience. Yes, there’s a but coming. The problem with the book is that it takes on this almost meta meets philosophical tone which becomes rather preachy/smug and a bit annoying, so apart from the beginning and the drama I found the book a bit ‘meh’. I wanted to like it more, honest. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

Faber & Faber, paperback, 1975 (2014 edition), short stories, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I received all of Aickman’s reissued collections unsolicited from Faber & Faber earlier in the year and thought ‘ooh these sound weird and wonderful’ and so thought they would be interesting to bring to the table for a classic choice on Hear Read This! (I know most of the books we do on there end up in round up review posts) as something different. As you will see in the next week or so 2014 has been the year of rediscovering the short story for me and so it ticked that box too being a collection of self proclaimed ‘strange stories’.

Well strange indeed they are but almost too strange. I like a ghost story, a horror story, urban legend, twisted fairy tale or just piece of bizarreness if it has a point/plot/thrill to it. All Aickman’s tales in this collection rather let me down, even the ones I rather loved like the almost-but-not-quite brilliant The Hospice, because the endings all let them down. Sadly in actuality sometimes the bonkers premise/middle (The Real Road to the Church, Niemandswasser, The Clockwatcher) just didn’t make sense and lacked punch. I felt like Aickman wanted to always be more clever, tricksy or just weird than the reader but in a way that made him feel better and doesn’t actually do anything for the reader. Each tale left me feeling cheated. Gav said this is the weird genre, I think maybe it is just not the genre for me. Glad I can say I have read them, unsure if I will read anymore unless one of you convinces me. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

Gallic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I love Jean Teule’s writing and so chose The Poisoning Angel for Hear Read This! as I thought a darkly funny book in translation would be something different. Like the brilliant, but very dark and gory Eat Him If You Like, this is based on a true story – the case of Helene Jegado who became one of the most notorious prisoners of her time and indeed in French history, we follow her journey from the time she poisons her mother…

Unlike Rob, Kate and Gavin, I really enjoyed this book. I laughed the whole way through, which I think you are meant to do, as Helene just wanders around the countryside for a few decades killing people off, not being caught by the police and no one thinking the better or inviting her in. That isn’t a complete spoiler, you know that from the blurb. There isn’t masses more to say about the book other than give it a whirl! You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

Blue Door Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 624 pages, from my own personal TBR

I read this while I was off in the authors; there are actually two of them, homeland of Sweden between two of the Camilla Lackberg novels – I truly was on a cold crime binge. It is a hard book to explain so I am stealing the blurb “Detective Inspector Joona Linna is faced with a boy who witnessed the gruesome murder of his family. He’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and is comatose with shock. Linna’s running out of time. The killer’s on the run and, seemingly, there are no clues. Desperate for information, Linna enlists disgraced specialist Dr Erik Maria Bark, a hypnotist who vowed never to practice again. As the hypnosis begins, a long and terrifying chain of events unfurls with reverberations far beyond Linna’s case.” This sounded just my kind of thing.

Now it is quite a doorstopper but as it started I was racing through the book. A creepy child, a scary serial killer, some hypnotism what wasn’t to love? Then I started to get, not bored exactly, a little jaded with it. You see I love a twisty book like Gone Girl or the even better (seriously) Alex and this felt like one of those initially, in fact more like Alex as it’s really quite nasty. Then the twists started to get too much, I started to get confused and lose belief in the story as I went on. I think the best crime authors have the generosity to make the reader feel clever and twist them at just the right times whilst spinning a true spiders web, this began to feel a bit like the authors were being too clever – Aickman syndrome, see above. It was a page turner, it was clever, it was twisty… It just didn’t quite get me along for the whole whirlwind ride.

Orfeo – Richard Powers

Atlantic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have left my thoughts on this one till last as it is the only book in this selection I didn’t finish and actually threw at a wall. I admit it started off very, very well. I liked the idea of a lonely composer calling the police when his dog dies, them discovering his home made science lab and thinking he might be a terrorist. A bit farfetched maybe, but fun. Then the writing bowled me over, I have never seen music written about so brilliantly.

The notes float and rise. They turn speech as pointless as a radio ventriloquist. Light and darkness splash over Peter at each chord change, thrill with no middleman. The pitches topple forward; they fall beat by beat into their followers, obeying an inner logic, dark and beautiful.
Another milky, troubled chord twists the boy’s belly. Several promising paths lead forward into unknown notes. But of all possible branches, the melody goes strange. One surprise leap prickles Peter’s skin. Welts bloom on his forearms. His tiny manhood stiffens with inchoate desire.
The drunken angel band sets out on a harder song. These new chords are like the woods on the hill near Peter’s grandmother’s, where his father once took them sledding. Step by step the singers stumble forward in a thicket of tangled harmonies.

So why did I throw it at the wall? Two reasons. Firstly, the writing about music is incredible… the first, second and even possibly the third time. Powers soon becomes a one trick pony as he carts this trick out over and over and over, there is almost a lyrical comparative sentence in every paragraph at one point. Clever becomes too clever and smug a theme with some of this selection of books! Secondly, remember I mentioned the farcical element, again went too far and made the story of Peter’s past seem all at odds with itself and slightly clichéd and done before. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

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So there we are the last round up of the year, well if you exclude a small catch up of books I don’t want to spoil which I will post in the next week or so! Have you read any of these books? If so what did you think of them? Would you recommend any other books by these authors?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Atlantic Books, Blue Door Books, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Faber & Faber, Gallic Books, Lars Kepler, Penguin Classics, Review, Richard Powers, Robert Aickman, Rounding Up The Reviews, Vintage Classics

Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

Once again, this time with ‘Travels With My Aunt’ my final Greene for Gran read, Graham Greene has done that thing of writing a book which I loved, got a bit frustrated and bored with and then sat back and thought about and have decided that whilst it wasn’t my favourite read of all time it is a bloody clever book indeed. Oh Gran… why oh why can’t you be on the end of the phone anymore for me to have a good old natter with you about this book? So frustrating, thankfully I have lots of you to discuss it with hopefully.

Vintage Classics, 1969 ( 1999 edition), paperback, 262 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Henry Pulling is a retired man who is very comfortable with his life, he doesn’t really want for anything and the highlight of excitement in his life are his dahlias which he tends to in a way some might say could be bordering on obsession. No gardening pun intended on the ‘bordering’ there. That is until the funeral of his mother and the arrival of his long lost septuagenarian (a word I will be promptly adding to my vocabulary) Aunt Augusta. From their first meeting at the funeral of his mother, where Aunt Augusta announces that his mother might not have been his mother at all, and the coffee in her apartment after, where he meets her man servant/lover Wentworth who swaps Henry’s mothers ashes for some marijuana, you know things are not going to be all flowers and regularly delivered cooked favourite meals before.

“I was weeding the dahlias, the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems, when my telephone began to ring. Being unused to the sound which shattered all the peace in my little garden, I assumed it was a wrong number. I had very few friends, although before my retirement I boasted a great many acquaintances.”

Aunt Augusta is what many people would politely describe as a ‘character’, those who might want to be more base would say she was a slightly crazy woman in her seventies who isn’t against the odd illegal action along with an abundance of sex from many a lover, which as we learn has always been the way. She is brass, quite coarse, a bit vulgar and rather naughty (for which I naturally loved her) and also a woman of a certain sense of danger, darkness and mystery (which I naturally wanted to discover more of) in fact of all Greene’s characters I have come across Aunt Augusta is probably my favourite and cleverly Greene never allows her to become a farce no matter how funny or crude she is being. I did often laugh out loud at paragraphs like this.

‘I very much doubt it,’ she said. ‘My dear Henry,’ she added, ‘at my age one has ceased to expect a relationship to last. Think how complicated life would be if I had kept in touch with all the men I have known intimately. Some died, some I left, a few have left me. If they were all with me now we would have to take over a whole wing of the Royal Albion. I was very fond of Wordsworth while he lasted, but my emotions are not as strong as they once were. I can support his absence, though I may regret him for a while tonight. His knackers were superb.’   

It was strange reading this later, 1969, Greene novel as for the first fifty or so pages of the book I felt like this was an author simply writing for the pleasure of it (it was his twentieth novel after all) and it seemed much more carefree. A simple tale of a happy, but boring, man who meets a wild relative and finds himself gallivanting all over the world on her whims/dodgy dealings. Then throw in some crazy characters, like a CIA Agent who counts the amount of minutes he spends urinating every day, and lots of rather rude titillation and hey presto an entertaining romp. That would have done me fine. Yet like ‘Our Man From Havana’ Greene also has a lot more going on with the book which slowly comes to focus as the laughter started to lessen.

To hand it to Greene he fits a lot in with this book. He looks at prostitution, the Nazi regime and how WWII changed the world, the plight of third world countries and even manages to swing in some commentary on the apartheid in South Africa along with how the pill had, rightly or wrongly, changed women’s sexual awakening and responsibility. Oh and (just for a change, possibly a sign of too much of an author not always being a good thing as it really got on my wick in this book) of course the subject of religion and Greene’s favourite topic of conversation Catholicism.

With the admiration of all these ‘hot topics’ that Greene interweaves within ‘Travels With My Aunt’ also comes a slight criticism for me. I felt that Greene suddenly worried he was almost having too much fun and that actually really we should be focussed on these subjects in hand and think on. Whilst it did add meat to the book, for me it also really bogged me down. I found the final part of the book, which to be fair is only 80 pages of the novels total, a real slog until Greene suddenly stepped it up a gear leading to the ending, which I guessed part of and then had a real ‘yuck’ feeling around the final two sentences.

Greene does this too me a lot as an author, leaves me feeling like I have read something rather brilliant even if I didn’t always enjoy the whole thing, more the sum of his parts. His prose is always lush and masterful and yet his plots sometimes make me ponder. ‘Travels With My Aunt’ could have just been a really entertaining and quirky read, and in many ways it remains that, there is just a little bit of a forced feeling of an author wanting to be deemed worthy that dampens it on occasion and makes the book feel much longer than it is. Or am I being too harsh?

Gran and I would have argued the toss about this for a few hours I am sure, with me possibly having to admit defeat at some point, but then the best books inspire debate don’t they –  so thanks Gran for making me give this a whirl! Greene will certainly be an author I will be returning to… though maybe not in quite such a concentrated dose. What have been your thoughts on Greene, and if any of you have read ‘Travels With My Aunt’ did you find the deeper undertones a little too try hard, or did they make the book a more fulfilling reading experience for you?

And don’t forget to let me know if you have read any Greene’s for Gran, what you thought of them and if you reviewed them where you did so.

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Filed under Graham Greene, Greene For Gran, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

I haven’t reported back on how the Manchester Book Club’s second meeting yet have I? In part that is because I have been busy yet I will admit that I have also veered away from discussing our first group read, chosen by Lucy, which was ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. This choice was one I was quite looking forward to, I don’t read enough classics, and being a ‘Manchester tale’ seemed completely apt. Well, I am sorry to report that I hated it (but in a rather healthy loved to hate it way) and I don’t like writing slating, if constructive, but I am going to and as she is dead I don’t feel as bad, though I know she has a legion of fans who will probably now think I am a philistine.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1848 (republished 2008), fiction, 496 pages, borrowed from the library

I am not someone who tends to read blurbs before I read a book, a topic for another time, yet as ‘Mary Barton’ was a book group choice and we vote on one of three titles chosen by a member and so we read the blurbs to decide. I voted for ‘Mary Barton’ because it sounded like it had all the elements of a great classic. There was a love triangle, a murder and a tale of mystery, injustice and a city in the grip of an industrial revolution. It sounded really epic and Mary Barton herself sounded like she could be a fantastic heroine struggling in the face of adversity. I did think it might be a rather stereotypical Victorian classic, but it would be fun to read one set in the city in which I live. I wasn’t expecting such a grim and depressing book which would also bore me rigid.

What makes it really hard to write about Mary Barton is that fact that, if we are all being honest, nothing actually happens in the book until the murder (and that isn’t giving anything away because you know one is coming from the blurb) yet that doesn’t actually take place for about 250 or more pages. So what are the first few hundred pages about? Well mainly how miserable everyone is and how it is ‘grim up north’ really. I know people say Manchester can be a rainy and slightly overcast place but this was too much.

‘The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain – just rain to waken up the flowers. But in Manchester, where alas! there are no flowers, the rain had only a disheartening and gloomy effect; the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty.’

I will admit the opening chapters are of a slightly lighter nature, the first describing the countryside around Manchester, and while initially I thought it was interesting to see the names of places I knew this waned and I was hoping for some plot or characters, if this book was going to be endless descriptions I wasn’t going to get on with it. The second chapter from its very title ‘A Manchester Tea Party’ suggests we will be getting characters and a situation, yes we do but for me it was a sudden mass of characters and initially I was cross and confused until I had figured out who everyone was.

As we do get to meet and know a character, which doesn’t happen too often as everyone seems to die a few pages after we get to know them, we are given insight into the social history of Manchester at the time. I can’t say I know much, or have ever been keen to know much, about the Industrial Revolution yet discovering about it became a glimmer of hope in what was fast becoming a book I was falling swiftly out of love with it. I did learn a lot I have to admit and I think in its day this book would have been somewhat of an eye opener. Gaskell was clearly doing something to make a point in the first half, alas after the murder she seems to give up, of what people were going through at the time. Good for her, and back then great reading I am sure, in the present day however someone would write a lengthy essay rather than have the same issues repeated over and over again for a few hundred pages and in such huge chunks you almost can’t take it in, or simply get bored and bogged down by it.

 ‘For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher. This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food, occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death. Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings. And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation. The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society.’

See what I mean, and that’s only half of that paragraph. I spared you the rest.

I could be lenient and say that this was a debut novel, so it is probably a book written from ideas and ideals. I also think I should state that it is a book of its time that hasn’t really aged very well. Yet forgive it all that and actually ‘Mary Barton’ isn’t really a novel, it’s more an overlong view of the Industrial Revolution and I think at heart that is really what Gaskell wanted to write. I am sure there will be academics up in arms at that sweeping statement but it’s true. Mary isn’t really a fully formed character, we learn more about those around her and their situations than we do her, she seems to simply be a tool for Gaskell to observe, fair enough, but give her some gumption.

 In fact that said I think that might be my big issue with ‘Mary Barton’ as a whole, it seems a half baked book. My reasons for such a critique are as I mentioned above Mary as a central character with no real central drive, just an observer, a murder which happens so late and becomes so clear who did it that it’s inconsequential, as is the trial later. These things are padding to a book that is far too padded with observational opinion already. If Gaskell had fully formed everything around the central issue of society at the time and in her area this could have been incredible, as it stands it’s a bit of a ‘moral guide to…’ instead. Sorry Mary.

What was interesting was that I rather enjoyed how much I disliked it in the end. It reminded me why we need bad books and to get cross now and again. I also rather naughtily felt pleased I could write off another writer, is that bad? I was also pleased to see that the feelings were felt unanimously between the twelve of us who met for book group, it was quite bonding. You can see a review from Lucy, who chose the book, here and another from Alex here.

Have you read ‘Mary Barton’ and what did you think? What other Gaskell novels have you read? I am bad to feel relief that I can write off an author after enjoying loathing one book so much?

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Filed under Elizabeth Gaskell, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

The French Lieutenant’s Woman; First Impressions

My aim to have read John Fowles ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as one of my ‘Three for Thirty’ may just be achieved before the clock strikes midnight tonight, however my plan to have reviewed it before then hasn’t come to fruition as I haven’t quite finished it. I am actually about two thirds through at the moment, though I have a long train journey to Shropshire later so should finish it then. I thought I would do something I haven’t done before, might do again though if its popular, and give you my first impressions of the novel because I am thoroughly enjoying it, so much so I am very hesitant to rush it.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1969 reissued 2012, fiction, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Naturally with this being my first real impressions I won’t give any spoilers away, if you can avoid them in the comments that would be lovely too, but I think it is ok to say what the story is really about from the start. As the novel opens, with a superb atmosphere of Lyme Regis in the 1860’s, we follow Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, taking a stroll. As they do they spot a lone figure staring into the sea, Ernestina tells Charles that this is Sarah Woodruff known locally in the village as ‘Tragedy’ or ‘The French Lieutenant’s Whore’ after she was disgraced when she had an a relationship with a French naval officer who was already betrothed. Shock, horror, the very idea! Charles becomes rather fascinated by her story, and so do we as the reader.

I loved how the novel started; there is a real atmosphere of some of the writing of the time, the slight sensation elements of the likes of Wilkie Collins etc, which I love anyway. There’s a certain darkness in the writing and the depiction of Lyme Regis and the people who inhabit it. This leads me to the characters, and what a marvellous bunch they are. Charles himself is both a complete charmer and a bit of a wrong ‘en as far as I was concerned, I didn’t think I would warm to him but strangely I have. Sarah is of course marvellously intriguing and Ernestine is brilliantly gossipy and demanding, I love her. My favourite character though has to be Mrs Poulteney

‘She was like some plump vulture, endlessly circling in her endless leisure, and endowed in the first field with a miraculous sixth sense as regards dust, fingermarks, insufficiently starched linen, smells, stains, breakages and all the ills that houses are heir to. A gardener would be dismissed for being seen to come into the house with earth on his hands; a butler for having a spot of wine on his stock; a maid for having slut’s wool under her bed.

Isn’t that just marvellous? Doesn’t it instantly evoke this woman? It also shows how wonderfully Fowles writes, which having not read him since ‘The Collector’ (which couldn’t be a more different book, apart from the dark tone) I had forgotten. I did worry that the way the narrator (and I have just got to the point where Fowles has introduced himself and it looks like there might be multiple endings coming) describes everything with hindsight and throwing a lot of information about the state of politics and the structure of society might get on my nerves. It isn’t hidden in the text, it’s fairly in your face, so I was worried I would feel like I was being lectured at, but I’ve gotten used to it and am learning even more about the Victorian period. Lovely stuff!

So you can imagine I am rather looking forward to several hours on the train with the characters and seeing how this possible multi-ending is going to go. I hope it carries on so wonderfully…

I am hoping to do a proper full review in timing with Cornflower Books next Book Group which ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is the subject of, until then let me know your thoughts on this book. Though no spoilers please! Oh and let me know what you think of ‘first impressions posts’ good, bad, would prefer a full review at the end and nothing more?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, John Fowles, Vintage Classics

Up at the Villa – W. Somerset Maugham

Well either I have been very lucky in the novellas that I have chosen for ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ so far or this way of testing out authors that I have meant to read might be favourable to any author. Either way ‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham has been a resounding hit with me. I have always thought that I might rather like W. Somerset Maugham. I think probably because of the era that he wrote in covers two of my favourite periods in history, the end of the 1800’s and the 1930’s and 40’s. I loved the movie adaptation of ‘The Painted Veil’ when I saw that a few years ago and had thought then ‘oh, I must read some of his books’, however I proceeded not to do that very thing. We have all been there I am sure.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1941, fiction, 120 pages, from the library

When I started ‘Up at the Villa’ I knew it was more than likely that I was going to like this book a lot. It had a slightly familiar feel, its protagonist Mary Panton is a widow (though you think she could easily have been a divorcee if fate hadn’t intervened ‘setting us both free’) who has fled to the hills above Florence to escape the world back home and think about her failed her disastrous marriage. She has however made friends, in the form of ‘The Princess’, and also found herself with more than one suitor already happy to share her future. There is Edgar, one of her fathers friends, who wants to look after her and clearly adores her and there is also Rowley Flint, a rogue if ever there was one, who Mary believes (possibly quite rightly) simply wants to have her.

I was prepared therefore to simply comfortably find myself embroiled in a love triangle that would take place over several lavish dinners, fuelled with wit and banter as the men tried their hardest to woe Mary and would have been quite happy if that had been the case. But it wasn’t. After one dinner and a brilliant sparing match between Mary and Rowley, Mary does something very rash on the way home, something which leads her into a situation that would shock and scandal the society that she is in, and the book takes a much darker turn. I didn’t see this coming (and of course I am not going to tell you what it is, but you wouldn’t guess it from the demure cover – see one below which is older and brilliant) and was literally thrilled by it.

If that wasn’t a revelation of its own then Somerset Maugham’s writing was. I was expecting something that would be much harder work, and yet I flew through this book if about an hour and a half – admittedly it is very short. The characters were marvellous if a touch stereotyped Rowley is the typical incorrigible bachelor who ladies shouldn’t love but do, The Princess was a typical rather wry matriarchal character who loves everybody else’s business and wants to tell everyone how to go about it too. It is Mary’s character that I found fascinating, a woman with fairly good means who doesn’t seem to know what to do with her life and so does something rash, and something she will regret, a woman who at thirty seems to be discovering a different side to herself even when she has had quite a trying time. I liked her a lot. I also liked how Maugham used her to describe the situation women might find themselves in at that time, and just what they shouldn’t go about doing whilst also showing that there are more to the stereotypical male than Mary, and women at the time, might think.

“The Princess gave him another of those quiet smiling looks of hers in which there was the indulgence of an old rip who has neither forgotten nor repented of her naughty past and at the same time a shrewdness of a woman who knows the world like the palm of her hand and come to the conclusion that no one is any better than he should be.
   ‘You’re an awful scamp, Rowley,and you’re not even good-looking enough to excuse it, but we like you’, she said.”

‘Up at the Villa’ is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but loose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.

The only question is which Somerset Maugham, as I now have 19 more to treat myself to, I should go for next? I don’t know if I am quite ready for ‘Of Human Bondage’ and I can still remember ‘The Painted Veil’ so maybe I should turn to ‘The Magician’ which I have on Mount TBR anyway? Maybe I should go for another shorter one… oh I don’t know – can you help?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Review, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics, W. Somerset Maugham

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson is a book that I have always felt I should really read and then never gotten around too. However as I have been preparing for this years Green Carnation Prize I thought it was time that I turned to some of the LGBT classics and so I picked it up and started to read… I simply couldn’t put the book down.

It is hard to decide if ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is a memoir or a piece of fiction, not that the label should matter as it’s a corking read, so I think the best way is to say it’s a mixture of the two. We are told the story of Jeanette as a young girl growing up under the fierce some and ever watchful eye of ‘Mrs Winterson’ her highly religious mother who has already decided that her adoptive daughter will become a missionary. However the problem with that is two fold. Firstly her daughter, whilst having respect for the church, has a mind of her own and rather strong wills. Secondly, which we discover as we read on, her daughter is one who suffers from the ‘Unnatural Passions’ and falls in love with someone of the same sex.

Being Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel it would be easy to simply label this work as ‘writing what you know’ and yet it is so much more than that. The character of Mrs Winterson whilst being a retelling of her mother has a slight fairytale like ‘wicked stepmother’ to it. In fact as the book goes on Winterson inserts small tales starting ‘once upon a time…’ as we go on giving the whole book a slightly magical feel. Her domineering yet quiet tyranny over Jeanette’s childhood could have lead Jeanette to become a down trodden doormat. Instead a small fire sparks somewhere and we see a young girl both caught in conflict between religion and sexuality and also pushed on by it.

“I might have languished alone for the rest of the week, if Elsie hadn’t found out where I was, and started visiting me. My mother couldn’t come till the weekend, I knew that, because she was waiting for the plumber to check her fittings. Elsie came everyday, and told me jokes to make me smile and stories to make me feel better. She said stories helped you understand the world. When I felt better, she promised to show me the basics I needed to help her with numerology. A thrill of excitement ran through me because I knew my mother disapproved. She said it was too close to madness.”

I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did through the novel. This is no misery memoir, though of course its labelled fiction, and whilst in parts it is harrowing (I admit I was petrified of Mrs Winterson often, especially when she did things quietly) there is a lot of joy and hope in the novel. I found the fact Mrs Winterson changed the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’ for her own benefit very amusing and also sad at once as if she could do that there clearly was more to her than met the eye and maybe she just didn’t know how to show it.

‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is not only a tale of ‘coming of age’, religion and sexuality. It’s a tale of the England and its prejudices and thoughts in the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t always as swinging as people might believe. It’s a book I am very pleased I finally took the time to read, and one that I would definitely urge others to read, if you haven’t already of course. 8.5/10

I am pleased to see that Winterson has quite the back catalogue to get through and so will have to read some more of her novels (I fortunately have a few on the TBR), any you would suggest as recommended reading? Have any of you read this yourselves? What’s the adaptation like?

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Filed under Jeanette Winterson, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics