Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

wide sargasso sea by Jean Rhys

The latest novel in my ‘list of betterment’ is one I have been meaning to read for a good while.  The novel was published in 1966.   Rhys was fascinated by the novel Jane Eyre and more specifically by Bertha, who was Rochester’s first wife – the mad woman in the attic.

The novel is set in Jamaica and the West Indies.  Antoinette is a Creole who lives with her mother and brother.  They face hatred from the locals and after their estate is set alight and Antionette’s brother dies, Antoinette is taken to stay with her aunt.  She later discovers that her mother had descended into madness due to the death of her son.

The narrative is divided into three parts.  The first part is told by Antoinette Cosway (as she is re-named in this novel) the second part is told by Rochester, and the third part is told by Antoinette after she is brought to England and locked up in the attic by Rochester.

Antoinette’s family are descended from slave owners and despite no longer being so, are hated and reviled by everyone in Coulibri, the estate and town where they reside.   They face daily antagonism and apart from their loyal nanny Christophine, (who herself practises a form of witchcraft called ‘Obeah’ and gives rum to drug and soothe Antoinette) they have no friends or support.

Antoinette’s step father knows Rochester’s family and he is set up as a likely suitor for Antoinette, but in truth he marries her solely for her inheritance.  A cold Englishman, he is never named by the author and it is clear from the start that he has no intention of treating his new wife with anything other than scorn and cruelty.  Despite the passion between them, he takes what he wants and then refuses Antoinette the love she so desperately craves.

This is a multi-layered complex novel dealing with the politics of Jamaica, oppression, slavery, and the Gothic telling of Antoinette’s descent into madness.

What I loved most about this book was the exquisite prose, and how Jean Rhys depicts in sublime detail the oppressive nature of the setting and the characters trapped within it.  For those who have read Jane Eyre (what do you mean you haven’t?!) and always wondered why Bertha had been driven insane, this novel will provide some answers.  What Charlotte Bronte would have thought of it, one can only imagine!

The final part of the novel brings us to the final descent into madness of the now called ‘Bertha’ who is kept in the attic by Grace Poole.   Haunting and unbearably poignant, Bertha or Antoinette hallucinates visions of the Jamaica she loved, despite the cruelty she encountered there, and in her final act she seeks to revenge those who have held her prisoner, both literally and metaphorically.

A stunning classic.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

atomised

OK, so first off.  I now understand that you are not supposed to like this book.  It is supposed to be depressing and a vivid look at the dysfunctional state of society.  I wish I had known that before I started reading it!  Houellebecq is a French writer who does not shy away from any controversy.  He is nasty and dirty, and I am afraid as far from what I enjoy reading as you can get.

I read this book because Andy Miller wrote about it in ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously.’ He loved it so much, and as I thought his book was funny and clever, I decided to add it to my list.   Big Mistake. Huge.

I cannot express how much I loathed this book.  I apologize profusely for having recommended it, and I hang my head in shame if you actually went out and bought it.

I know there are all kinds of commentaries on the state of society and the plight of human beings.  There is much philosophy thrown in to enliven the boredom of a story where little happens.  There will be those who say – ‘stupid woman, you just don’t get it.’

But therein lies the problem.  I do get it, but I hate it anyway.

Two brothers – one a scientific genius, one a social drop out who is utterly obsessed with sex (don’t even get me started on the smut in this book – gratuitous and unnecessary.)

The novel follows their depressing, desperate lives as they find love, lose love, try and fail to have sex, and contemplate suicide.  You know what, within five minutes I hated them both, and that was my problem with this novel.  How can you enjoy a novel when you hate the two main characters.  I felt no sympathy for them, they were just two pathetic specimens trying their best in this mad world.  Who cares?

There were a few funny moments but God knows the novel needed them.

I know the point of a book review is to be objective and look for the balance.  Sorry I have failed miserably here.  I just don’t care enough.

Not one I would recommend.

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham

The razors edge

Buy on Amazon

When I was in my early twenties my father recommended Somerset Maugham to me.  I remember reading ‘The Razor’s Edge’, but truth be told, twenty odd years later I couldn’t remember much about it.

Maugham wrote the book in 1944 and there has been much speculation over the years as to where he got his inspiration for the main character of Larry.

The book is narrated by Maugham himself, who wanders in and out of the story at will, as he follows the lives of a group of characters over a twenty-year period. The story begins in Chicago in 1919.  Larry Darrell had been a pilot during the first World War. He is engaged to Isabel who adores him.  Isabel’s uncle, Elliot Templeton is a snob and a social climber.  He wants a good match for Isabel.  When Larry shows no signs of wanting to work, and turns down a good job offered by the father of his friend Grey Maturin, Elliot is concerned.

Larry wishes to travel and to, as he calls it, ‘loaf’ but Isabel is used to having money, so after trying to persuade Larry to get a job, to which he obstinately refuses, they break off their engagement and she marries Gray Maturin a very successful stock broker.

Larry sets out on a spiritual quest to try and find the purpose of his life and life in general.  The reason for this is as enigmatic as Larry himself.  Could it be due to the incident that happened during the war, where a friend died saving his life? We know it affected Larry deeply but he seems as unsure of his path as everyone else.

Without revealing any more of the plot, the novel weaves a fascinating path as it follows the lives of all of the main characters, as mentioned above.   There is also another important character called Sophie, who reveals more about Isabel’s character to us than any dialogue could ever do.

Maugham manages to balance a beautiful clear fluid style with an engaging narrative.  This is most definitely a character based novel.  If you are looking for action, this is not the book for you.  However, if you like a good psychological drama, where characters flaws, fears, secrets and desires are gradually revealed through a series of circumstances, then look no further.

For a taster of Maugham’s wonderfully easy narrative style and characterization, his early description of Elliot Templeton is a good example:

“He was a colossal snob.  He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connexion with some crusty old dowager of great name.”

This novel is right up my street.  I love novels that contain deep characterization and exploration of a character’s motives, which this novel has in abundance.   It also has wonderful settings in Paris, the Riviera and Chicago.

I feel I cannot do it justice with a simple book review.  I would suggest giving it a go.  It is the sort of novel I feel you will either love or hate, and you should know pretty quickly.

I personally think Maugham is a genius and I might even be tempted to try and read ‘Of Human Bondage’ now, which is a tome and a half!

Please do let me know if you have read it.  I think it is my favourite from my list of betterment so far and a novel I will definitely re-read.  How did you like it or did you hate it?  If so, why?

Next month’s list of betterment read is Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.  This one I am reading because Andy Miller from The Year of Reading Dangerously raved about it.  I am not so sure?!  For the full list of my reading goals for 2017 see here:

The List of Betterment

 

Review of Stoner by John Williams

Stoner

Stoner to buy on Amazon UK

Described by The Sunday Times on its cover as ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read,’ Stoner by John Williams is a superb piece of prose fiction.

First published to little acclaim in 1973, thanks to John McGahern for one, it enjoyed a successful renaissance in 2003.   I first read it a few ago at a book club, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to read it again and review it here.

An only child, brought up on his parents’ farm in Missouri, William Stoner led a small sheltered existence.  In 1910, he goes to the University of Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture, so that he can help his father out more on the farm.  However, during one semester when he has to take an extra subject, he takes a course in English Literature and falls in love with language and literature.  His life is changed by his professor Archer Sloane who recognizes a fellow traveller and encourages his passion.

Much to his parents’ dismay, he abandons his studies in agriculture and instead pursues a degree in English literature, followed by further academic studies, in order to become a professor of English literature himself.

This is a simple story of one man’s life and the struggles he faces.  Written in the third person, the narrative style is factual and understated, but with such an elegant beauty that it rendered me tearful on several occasions throughout the novel.

William Stoner is a quiet man, full of integrity, who builds his life on solid principles and values. Sadly, there are always those who would seek to take advantage of such goodness.  Stoner’s wife Edith is one such character.  She is so manipulative and evil towards her husband that you are desperately hoping he gives her a good clout.  He is too good a man for that.  He faces everything she throws at him with equanimity and good humour, and this is frustrating at times, if not admirable.

When Edith seeks to separate his daughter from him, I was disappointed in him for the only time throughout the book, for not standing up to her.

Stoner faces challenges from both students and professors at the university.  He remains true to his principals at all times when refusing to pass a student – Charles Walker, for work that does not deserve to pass.  In doing so, he incurs the ongoing hatred of a fellow professor called Lomax, who tries to ruin Stoner.  Stoner quietly continues to stand by his values, do what is asked of him (even when it is horribly unfair) and heroically does so without complaint.

There are times during the novel when you wonder how much more the poor man can take.  He does at times question this himself:

“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it.  He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been.”

He finds happiness later in life with Katherine Driscoll, a student, and as we cheer him on, we know that yet again he is fated to lose the one true love of his life.

Whether you feel Stoner is a weak man or a hero, you cannot doubt his integrity, goodness and calm perseverance through the unfair blows of fate he is dealt.  He is not without passion and has given love as well as receiving it. He reflects on the love he has given:

“But he was not beyond it, he knew and would never be.  Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.  In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before.  He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life.”

I loved this book as much, if not more, on a second reading.  The narrative pace is as perfect as I have ever read in any novel.  It is the understated elegance of the prose and the sadness of one man’s heroic struggle against those of ‘meaner natures and lesser minds.’   I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It deserves the status of a classic.

As ever, feel free to share your views on the novel.  I would love to hear them!

I am having a little break from my list of betterment, but in July will return with the next book on my list, which is ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham.  It was supposed to be ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham, but I have read that and couldn’t put myself through it again!  I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ over 20 years ago, so can’t remember a thing about it.  Let’s see how I get on this time!

Feel free to read along or share your current reads.  Any books that have changed your life lately? Don’t keep it to yourself – be kind and share!

Book Addiction – Bad!  Reading – Good! Why there are worse things than a Book Addiction!

Image result for too many books

I have noticed recently that my to be read pile is growing at an alarming rate and my book addiction is getting worse.  I find it hard to pass a book shop without going in…’just for a look,’ which inevitably turns into the purchase of at least one book and usually several.  If there’s a two for the price of one offer on I’m sunk.  As for second hand and charity bookshops, it is not unheard of for me to come out with between eight to ten books.

I was berating myself for this the other day, as I tried to cram yet more books onto a shelf which is already overflowing.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: This is ridiculous, this book buying has really got to stop.  Look at all these books….grrrrr.

Me in reply: Oh but look at them, aren’t they fabulous?  I can’t wait to read them.

Me: Read them?  Half of those books have been sitting on that shelf for nearly two years without being read, because you keep buying more.

Me in reply: I know, but I will read them one day.

Me: One day, one day.  Just STOP buying books.  You are a total nightmare.  You keep buying new books before you have even read the ones you have.

Me in reply:  OK, I know that is a bit of a problem and I am going to try and stop doing that.  But I still think there are much worse addictions that a book addiction, and in fact some would say it’s a good way to spend your money.  I am going to think of all the reasons to justify my book addiction, and guess what I might even write a blog post about it.

Me: You do that.  (Carries on day in a huff with self.)

So, here I am ready to tell you all the reasons why it is good to buy books

  1. By the time I am an old lady (if God willing I live into old age) I will have the most fantastic book collection which I may be able to leave to a library or perhaps a group of schools, thus imparting wisdom and learning.
  2. Reading is a fantastic way to learn about life, about people, and about how to make sense of the world. Novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction all help us in this way.  Thus, books are an essential tool in our lives.
  3. Reading a physical book means you are not looking at a screen which we all now know has to be a good thing. We are spending far too much time looking at screens to the detriment of our long-term health and wellbeing.
  4. Reading stimulates the mind. It has been shown that stimulating the mind slows down the deterioration of the mind and keeps us mentally agile.
  5. Reading helps us become more empathetic as we begin to understand how other people view the world.
  6. Reading helps us feel connected, when we see that other human beings share the same emotions and thoughts as we do.
  7. Reading makes you more intelligent.
  8. Reading helps you unwind before sleep (as long as it is not a page turner in which case, good luck!)
  9. Reading helps you escape your daily grind by taking you to exotic and exciting places.
  10. According to researchers at theUniversity of Sussex, reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent.

I rest my case.  Now if someone could just help me figure out how to stop buying books until I have read the ones I already have, that would be great.

Image result for too many books

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita on Amazon

Where to begin?  What a novel!  Honestly, I am still reeling. Strange beyond strange. The weirdest aspect of it all – I still can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it.  What I loved was the sheer boldness of the Devil.  I also loved the imagery and the lightning fast roller coaster action. What I hated was always asking myself ‘what does that mean? and why did that just happen?  Hard work.

I couldn’t even begin to sum up the plot, so I’ll just give you a few of the main points.

It begins with two men having a discussion while sitting on a park bench at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow.  One is a poet called Bedzomy and the other is a man called Berlioz. He is the head of the literary society Massolit. They are having a discussion about the existence of Jesus Christ.  A foreign looking gentleman sits down beside them.   He goes by the name of Professor Woland, but is actually the devil – are you with me so far?  OK that’s about the most straightforward part of the novel.

From there we have two settings, – 1930s Moscow, where Woland and his entourage, which includes an oversized cat called Behemouth, wreak havoc on society through magic shows, fires, and all manner of madness, which leads to many individuals ending up in a psychiatric ward, including the aforementioned Bedzomy.

The second setting is a novel within a novel – the Master, a writer that we only know by that name, has written a book about Pontius Pilate, and we are given extracts of this work which is set in Jerusalem.   The Master also ends up in the psych ward, but is later freed.  We know nothing about his past or where he came from, which I also found hard to get my head around.

If you want a detailed description of the novel, can I suggest you use Google, where you will find minds far better equipped to describe the plot than I can.  I am merely blogging of my experience of reading this as part of my Reading Gym – she says, copping out entirely.  Sorry but I feel I would need a Masters in English lit to get to the truth of this one.

So, I guess having ploughed my way through this novel, am I any the wiser?

Well one thing I can understand is why it is regarded as a classic.  It includes magical realism, a satirical look at the Soviet Union of the 1930s, not to mention looking at the themes of religion and even love.  There are also major thematic debates on the battle between good and evil.

The love story between the Master and Margarita only comes into play in the second half of the novel, and having persevered to that point, I began to enjoy it much more, as some of the mysteries were cleared up.

What I found difficult about this novel were the incredible number of themes, deeper meanings and satire. I found it hard at times to enjoy the story for its own sake.  I was always aware of there being more than the narrative at play.

Would I recommend it?  If you like a challenge, or you feel like reading something wild and completely different, then yes.  Otherwise forget it.   I feel like I would need to read it at least two more times to really get to grips with it, but somehow, I suspect I won’t ever read it again.   Oh well, at least now I can say I have read some Russian literature!

If you have read it, please feel free to share your thoughts.  Maybe you can educate us all?!

Next month’s read is Stoner by John Williams.  Hoorah!  I have read it before and cannot wait to read it again and share my views.   I highly recommend Stoner.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

middlemarch-by-george-eliot

This was the first book on my 2017 ‘list of betterment’ (see previous post in Nov 2016, on ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Millar) or as I call it, ‘My Book/Reading Gym.’

I set myself a target to read 50 pages a day.  Some days I read more, on only a few occasions I read slightly less.  As I reached 600+ pages I galloped through the final 200 pages.

Readers have strong views on Middlemarch.  They rhapsodize about it, or detest it.  Not much middle ground in terms of the opinions I have heard. Well – I loved it.  I wouldn’t say it was the best book I have ever read or that it changed my life, but I definitely loved it.

George Eliot writes as omniscient narrator, and this along with the Victorian references and wordiness grated with me initially, until the brilliant characterization swept me along, and I became lost in the world of Middlemarch society.

The novel is set in 1830 and covers a wide range of the societal and political issues of the day, from medicine to parliamentary reform and education. I won’t begin to try and summarize the plot.  If you want to know what it’s about, google it my friends!  800 pages is 300 pages too long for a summary.

Instead I am going to tell you why I loved this novel.  The manner in which Eliot draws together all the different lives of the characters, and weaves the storylines between them, and makes the connections appear understated yet important, is nothing short of genius.   The characters’ lives weave, mesh and become entangled in the subtlest but most daring ways.   Two characters who may have not even met, suddenly turn out to be the cause of each other’s potential downfall.  The moral dilemma between Bulstrode, Dr Lydgate and the rest of Middlemarch society had me gripped and transfixed.

The two main characters of Dorothea and Dr Lydgate held the most interest for me.   Many reviewers have portrayed Dorothea as a saint and a specimen of perfection.  For me (as much as I did try to imagine how hard it must have been for women in the 1830s) she was an irritating sycophant.  She married the much older Mr Causaubon because he was so highly knowledgeable in her eyes, and so much worthier than herself.  Blimey, whip yourself a bit harder why don’t you.  She had him on such a high pedestal, it was inevitable there was only one way for him to go, which he duly did.  Down down down.     She then falls in love with Will Ladislaw, but cannot admit it to herself, or have anything to do with him until he proves himself worthy.  I know she had it tough, but I just yearned for her to show some feistiness, or some rebellion at some point.  Her self-pity and self-flagellation just made me want to puke.  Mind you, her sister Celia was worse, particularly when she became a mother to her darling Arthur.

Even though Rosamond (who married Dr Lydgate) was vain, self-centred and selfish, at least she had a bit of back bone and knew what she wanted.

My two favourite characters were probably Dr Lydgate and Mary Garth.  Humble, dependable, sure of themselves and their values. Poor Dr Lydgate.  My heart truly broke for him.  Marrying the selfish Rosamond, and struggling both financially and with his lifelong ambition. He needed a wife like Dorothea to fulfill all his needs, while he got on with his work.

Middlemarch is a book I imagine you could read five or six times and still not fully appreciate.  There is so much to it, my mind boggles just thinking about it.  It is a book I hope to read again in a few years.    To be honest I don’t think I got the full juice out of it on a first reading.  I also appreciated and enjoyed the exquisite writing, and marked many passages in the book.  One of my favourites regarded the nature of Mr Casaubon and his inability to enjoy anything in life.  A truly remarkable piece of writing:

“It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy; to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold…but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.”  (Chapter 29 Page 280 Penguin Classics edition)

Eliot’s wisdom is rare, her genius plentiful.  It may take some effort and some time to read this masterpiece, but certain things are worth the effort, and in my opinion, reading Middlemarch is one of them.

If you have read it, I would love to hear your opinions.  Who was your favourite character?  Do you agree with me re Dorothea, or do you think she is the true heroine of the novel? Pray do tell (sorry…went all Victorian there for a moment.)

Next up at The Reading Gym is:  ‘Les Jeux sont Faits’ by Sartre.   I will be reading it in French, but if you fancy reading along, you can get a translation entitled ‘The Chips are Down.’  What a hideous translation, but never mind!  It’s not that easy to get, so I fear I may be on my own with this one!  The next book after that is ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen.   I can’t wait for that one!

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed your stay at The Book Club Cafe!