A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 1
I thought it was about time for a run-down of my October book haul. Despite living the high life in the Big Apple, I’ve still (just about) kept up with my book challenge. I’m on book number 85 at the moment, so what with the flight home still to come, I should reach the a hundred target just in time! And which books kept me up to speed during this last month? Well, we have:
- The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark) – I really enjoy Spark’s style of writing and this tale did not let me down. Ironically comedic, yet with a tragic ending, this tale of the girls of the May Teck Club shows the young women’s determination to ignore the bombing and war going on around them and instead focus on men and clothes. “Three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”; the May of Teck club, like the girls inside it, outwardly shows no sign of the war’s harm, but are clearly deeply and painfully affected underneath. Very enjoyable though pathetic.
- Agnes Grey (Anne Bronte) – As a passionate hater of both ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (sorry Heathcliff/Mr Rochester fans!) my hopes were not high for this novel about Agnes Grey, a governess, and her life. But *drumroll please* I actually really enjoyed it! The key difference between this book and the dreaded Jane Eyre is that whereas the latter is all about Jane and her awful childhood and her terrible life and her pained existence blahblahblah poor little Jane, the former is a really interesting portrayal of life as a governess in Victorian England. Plus it has a cute little love story running through it, and if Anne herself is a bit too goodly and pious for my liking, her charges are incredibly well characterised and very entertaining in their obnoxiousness.
- Cakes and Ale (W. Somerset Maugham) – A fun but kind of forgettable read, mainly worth perusing for the sarcastic and satirical remarks on writing and journalism. The story is written from the point of view of an author, about another author, Driffield, who he used to know and, more importantly, this old author’s bewitching and sexually liberated first wife Rosie. I mean, it’s not going anywhere near the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s still reasonably engaging, it has a strong female anti-heroine (who’s a bit like Becky Sharp in Thackery’s ‘Vanity Fair’ actually), and, as I say, the satirical comments on writing and authors in general are very witty.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) – A modern classic which I’m sure most of you have heard of and seen – the movie, starring Rachel McAdams (who’s weirdly just married another time traveller in Richard Curtis’ new movie ‘About Time’) Eric Bana, came out in 2009, though I haven’t watched it yet. The concept is brilliant, and the execution, though different from my expectations, was completely gripping. A) I didn’t realise Henry DeTamble (the eponymous time traveler) wouldn’t be able to either control his ability or change history at all when he went back – I mean, really what is the point of being able to time travel then?! – and B) that time travel would be so hideously awful to experience. I mean, there are honestly no upsides to the whole thing. None. At. All. I remain convinced that even without Henry being in Clare’s childhood they still would have found each other and fallen in love. But I guess the book isn’t really about the what ifs, it’s about the power of love over logic and reason. Is all that worrying and stress worth it for the time they have together? I’m not sure… The ending, in my opinion, was horribly depressing. Clare’s life seems to dwindle to non-existence at some points; it’s all about waiting for Henry, being with Henry, waiting for Henry again. Get your own life! Stop waiting around and live a little!
- How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Mohsin Hamid) – I read this for a book club here which I was kindly allowed to participate in, and was once again pleasantly surprised. Employing the format of a self-help book, Hamid never names any of his characters, referring only to the protagonist as ‘you’, his love interest as ‘the pretty girl’ and his wife as ‘your wife.’ Although this could have seemed gimmicky, I thought it worked very well. I especially liked that each chapter only focused on the important bits of the nameless man’s life – we got to skip all the boring bits. For me, this novel couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Asia, though some of the book club disagreed and felt it was a global tale, with a global message; I disagreed because of the evocative descriptions of the heat and humidity, plus the references to religion and its effects on women. Another point of debate was whether this is, at heart, a love story. I say yes to this; not so much in the sense of romantic love, but in the sense of love in general being vital to happiness in life. A nice, easy, yet very interesting, read, well worth trying.
- The Old Wives’ Tale (Arnold Bennet) – A story of three women, Mrs Baines and Constance and Sophia, her two daughters; their lives, their loves and their places in society beginning in 1864 and ending in the early twentieth century, kind of comparative with Gissing’s ‘The Odd Women’ and HG Wells’ ‘Ann Veronica’, in that it focuses on the lives and independence of women in Victorian society. In actual fact, the story is not particularly gripping. For the most part, Bennet focuses on the extreme normality, the almost blandness of their day to day lives. Even Sophia, the one with seemingly the most spirit and nerve, realises the narrowness of her life. However, what makes this book worth reading is Bennet’s great sense of irony and excellent characterisation; there are some brilliantly satirical lines, especially at the more light-hearted beginning:
“Their ages were sixteen and fifteen; it is an epoch when, if one is frank, one must admit that one has nothing to learn: one has simply learnt everything in the previous six months.”
- We (Yevgeny Zamyatin) – So I picked up this one because I love dystopian fiction and, according to the blurb, this is the daddy of them all, particularly George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which, not over-exaggerate or anything, is one of the best books ever. ‘We’ isn’t nearly as enthralling as that novel, but it is easy to see the parallels; the man writing a diary, in a supposedly all-seeing regime, lured astray by an enchanting, Eve-like woman and (spoiler alert!) discovered by the government and punished for it (although that comes much later in this than in Orwell’s). Although this perhaps isn’t as finely tuned as others in the genre, it’s definitely worth reading, partly for the historical interest and partly because it’s always fun to discover these new worlds and the logic behind them. The most irritating thing is that the protagonist, D-503, always tails off into an ellipsis whenever he gets near a really interesting philosophical…
- What Maisie Knew (Henry James) – I read this, despite my antipathy of James because of the ridiculously boring ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, after my bestie Sophie recommended it, and after the recent film came out, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, and the trailer peaked my interest. It’s the story of Maisie, a young girl wise beyond her years, who is used as a pawn in her uncaring parents’ bitter divorce. There’s bits and bobs that go alongside this as the plot; Maisie’s governess, her father’s new wife, her mother’s new husband, her mother’s new lovers, her father’s new lovers, etc. Again, the plot isn’t the best one out there, but Maisie herself is fascinating and very believable. I’d love to see the film and how they transpose it to a modern setting. However, although Maisie herself is very interesting I have to qualify my praise somewhat as all the other characters bring back the all the elements of James I hate: paranoia, ridiculous passions, fits of seeming despair and rage, just over-the-top melodramatics all round. So incredibly irritating!