Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

How did I ever miss this book? In 2003, the Guardian named Housekeeping one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, describing the book as: "Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women." And I just bumped into it by accident while browsing in the library the other day. The cover caught my eye.

Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for in succession by their grandmother, two elderly aunts, and then finally their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Once they are under Sylvie's care, Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. She also examines the effect their mother's suicide and the legend of their grandfather's bizarre death had on them.

Narrated by Ruth and set in a fictional town on a lake somewhere in Idaho, the novel is poetic and haunting, and touches on many themes: motherhood, sisterhood and families and what it means when these relationships are cut off, the juxtaposition of "normal" society with people who live on the fringe of it (itinerants, hoarders, people who live isolated lives in the mountains or in anonymous city apartments), and the characters' relationships to the natural world. Ruth, Lucille and Aunt Sylvie spend much of their time outdoors, on and around the lake, in the woods, and on the mountain. The lake, where both Ruth's mother and grandfather died, can almost be considered another character in the novel, given the impact it has on the lives of everyone and the evocative way the author writes about it.

Finely written, thought provoking and suspenseful, I can certainly understand why this book ended up on a "best of" list, but not why it took me so long to discover it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

I read this as part of the BerkeleyX Book Club MOOC.  Taking this online class was excellent motivation to read this classic novel, at just the right time of year.

Despite the old fashioned style and vocabulary (helpfully, the class offered explanations of archaic vocabulary for each chapter of the book), this was a quick read.  Assignments for the class and weekly quizzes, however, meant I did go back over parts of the book in finer detail than I would have if I had just been reading it for myself.

Most of you will be familiar with the plot, as I was, having seen one or more of the many film and TV adaptations that have been made of this novel over the years.  The main character, Scrooge, is visited by three ghosts in the course of a night, who show him Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, in order to make him aware of how he is living his life, and what will happen if he does not change.

For me, the major theme of the book is that of redemption and how anyone can make a change, become a better person, and embody the spirit of Christmas more often than just one day per year.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An exciting new online book club!

Just a quick post to share something I think is wonderful: there is a new MOOC (Massive Online Open Class) that started on the EdX MOOC platform: a year long book club/English literature class, taught by Berkeley professor Maggie Sokolik.  There will be one classic book a month taught for the next 12 months, and you can sign up for each month individually.  The class starts out now, December 2014, with A Christmas Carol, and will continue in January with Huckleberry Finn.  Here is a short interview with Professor Sokolik with more explanation about the course on the EdX blog.

I, for one, and very excited about this - not only have I not really read a lot of the great classics of English literature (having a degree in French literature), but there isn't much opportunity here in Belgium to belong to an English speaking book club.

Here is the complete list of books the course will cover:

December: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
January: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
February: Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
March: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
April: Dubliners, James Joyce
May: Dracula, Bram Stoker
June: The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
July: A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle
August: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
September: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
October: Room with a View, EM Forster
November: Call of the Wild, Jack London

I already took one MOOC through EdX this year (The Science of Happiness) and I really enjoyed the self paced learning environment, and so I am looking forward to continuing with the BerkeleyX Book Club.

Interested?  Check it out!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory (2013) - book 5 in The Cousin's War series

I recently became very addicted to the BBC television series "The White Queen", based on the first four
books in The Cousin's War series by Philippa Gregory.  When the series ended, I wanted to know more and checked out the next book in the series, as well as a few other historical novels on the English monarchy by other authors.

While I did enjoy reading about what happened to Henry Tudor after he became King Henry VII, and his wife Elizabeth of York, and it was interesting to read all the details about life at court during those times, sometimes the book was a bit tedious.  Written from the point of view of the women in the kings' lives, Elizabeth of York (as portrayed by Gregory) just didn't seem to have the same power, cunning, or strategic insight as her mother, grandmother, or even mother-in-law.  She is always saying she does not know anything, or cannot do anything to help anyone, torn as she is between loyalty to her husband and love for her missing, mythical brother, one of the lost Princes in the Tower, a constant threat to Henry VII's reign.  I completely understand why the BBC decided to end the television series with the previous book.

Elizabeth of York was the mother of Henry VIII, and fittingly, the next book on my list is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  I think this will be a much more engrossing read, as I loved the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall.  Mantel is an incredible writer.

Monday, April 14, 2014

En finir avec Eddy Belleguelle - Edouard Louis (2014)

I have to admit that I don't read French novels very often anymore. Living in Flanders and being a native English speaker means new French novels aren't really on my radar, even though our public library, in addition to having an excellent collection of English novels, also has a good collection of French novels.

Recently, however, the weekly literary supplement in our newspaper had a full spread about Edouard Louis, the 22-year-old author of the bestselling French novel "En finir avec Eddy Belleguelle".  I read the article, intrigued about how Louis wrote the novel to come to terms with his harsh childhood, and when we were in France last week, I happened to see the book and bought it, and ended up reading it over the course of a couple of days, because it was impossible to put down.

This autobiographical novel tells the story of Eddy, a young boy growing up in a small village in the north of France in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  He is the middle of five children in a poor family; his father is a factory worker who ends up on disability and his mother an in-home aide to the elderly.  The major problem for Eddy is that for as long as he can remember, he has had feminine characteristics - he describes his voice as impossibly high, his arms as flapping entities, all barely under his control when he speaks.  And from the very beginning of the book, we are witness to the brutal bullying he is put through at school, at home, in the village, for being different from the norm.  Eddy's childhood is a hell, and not only because of the bullying.

Eddy's family experiences difficulties ranging from alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, abuse, violence, even an unhealthy housing situation.  It was hard to read his descriptions of the moldy, damp, cold home his family lived in, in addition to all the rest of the misery he describes.  He had no safe place to go.

The book is fueled by the author's need to shake off the ghosts of the past, and as the title says, to finish or be done with Eddy Belleguelle, his childhood persona, to escape the victim he was as a child, and to a certain degree, take revenge on those who wronged him.  The portraits he paints of his parents, grandmother, brothers and sisters, cousins, and other people are chilling in their dark verity; all the violence done to Eddy is laid out as if in a court of justice, fact after horrifying fact, quote after ugly quote.

The author alternates his clear, almost dispassionate first-person narrative with verbatim quotes of family, enemies and friends peppered strongly with the local dialect.  If it weren't for some of the most shocking abuse scenes, I think this book would be an excellent text for an advance high school French class - it is so well and clearly written that a non-native reader can find her way around the modernisms and slang quite easily.  In addition, the themes of poverty, discrimination, and bullying would lend themselves well to classroom discussions.  But as an individual reader, what stays with me most after finishing the book is a feeling of intense sadness that a child had to go through such a difficult time.  Thankfully for Louis (who apparently changed his last name after leaving home) it seems he was able to somehow turn life into art and move on to a better place.  It will certainly be interesting to see if he continues with his career as a novelist.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Homework by Margo Livesey (1990)

Another volume I randomly picked up at the library and continuing my London theme, I guess.  Although the bulk of this novel takes place in Edinburgh, a good part of the beginning of the novel is in London.

The story is a first-person account by Celia, a textbook editor, of her love life and two major romances, as well as a bit about her career, but the cornerstone of the story is her difficult relationship with the 10-year-old daughter of her second, much more serious boyfriend, Stephen.  Celia meets Stephen after she moves to Edinburgh for a new job after having a disastrously one-sided relationship with a very selfish man in London.

She soon discovers that Jenny, Stephen's daughter, is not the lovely little girl that her father makes her out to be; Jenny is not pleased about the new situation and proves to be very devious about showing her displeasure to Celia.  A lot of tension builds up between Jenny and Celia and this puts pressure on her relationship with Stephen.

I enjoyed this novel, for several reasons.  First of all, the peculiarly quaint, almost old-fashioned feel to it - reading it 25 years after publication, you really feel that you are going back to an older, more simpler time, most evident in the descriptions of daily life - for example where Celia has to pull over to a public telephone to reach Stephen (no cell phones!) - and in Celia's office - an assistant who has to type up manuscripts for her!

I also enjoyed the author's detailed description of London and Edinburgh, as well as the various side characters in the novel, who all rang true as regular people.

Finally, the tension between Celia and Jenny, and wondering what mean prank the little girl was going to spring on her new stepmother next created a feeling of suspense in the novel which made it very difficult to put down.  The only thing I found a bit disappointing was the ending - no twist and no decisive action from Celia.  But perhaps this is more in keeping with the novel's quaint realism.  Other than that, it was an engaging read.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi (2008)

This was a random find while browsing through the library's English novel shelves.  I had never really heard of the author, Hanif Kureishi, although I definitely remember when the movie "My Beautiful Laundrette" came out (for which he wrote the screenplay).

I took this book home to read because the story sounded intriguing and it took place in London, a city I love to visit.  The story follows the main character, Jamal, who is a middle aged psychoanalyst, as he goes about his current life in London, as well as in flashbacks of his life in the late 1970's, centered around a romance he had with a woman he believes he is still in love with, and the reason their relationship ended.  This involves a secret he has kept about a crime he committed, and he fears the secret will come out after they reconnect in the present (2005).

I struggled to get through this book and the only thing that kept me going were the descriptions of places and life in London and my curiosity about whether or not Jamal's secret came out and what the ramifications would be.  The characters and their milieu were often shockingly decadent, and I had a hard time sympathizing with or relating to any of them.  Much of the book draws on the lifestyles of the rich and famous in theater, film, television and music, with a focus on the underbelly of drugs, prostitution, sex clubs, and how people manipulate and exploit one another.  Not really my cup of tea, so it will be a relief to return it to where I found it, and start reading something else completely different.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011)

This book was a random library find; the dark red cover pulled me to take it off the shelf.
I had never heard of the author, nor of her first novel, Mudbound, which my library unfortunately doesn't have.

I've always been intrigued by stories that take place in a changed future world and When She Woke takes place in the near future in Texas mainly, where hinted-at wars and outbreaks of disease have changed society in many ways.  In many parts of the story I wished the author would have delved more into the details of these catalysts for change.   However, she stuck firmly to the story of the main character, Hannah, and the change that most affected her, the fact that abortion was illegal, and punishable by "chroming", a process whereby a convicted criminal is injected with a virus that causes their skin to turn a color that marks them to the outside world as a criminal.  In Hannah's case, she becomes red, and is instantly recognizable to everyone as a murderer.  The story details the illicit affair with her pastor that leads to her "crime", her incarceration and punishment, and her attempt to escape her plight.

The novel is an enjoyable quick read, and well paced, but many of the characters felt like they came right out of a script for a futuristic action-packed blockbuster; too many of them had too much of a stereotypical profile.  Plus the visual gimmick of bright red, blue and yellow humans seems to lend itself perfectly to a film interpretation, and a little bit more awkwardly to the printed page.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (2013)

I wasn't sure I really wanted to read this book.  It just did not sound appealing to me: a forty-something woman with a successful business, an attractive health-nut husband and two great step-children decides to put all of it on hold (and at risk) in order to hole up with her morbidly obese older brother in a rental apartment and supervise a boot-camp style liquid fast to help him lose the weight.  Ugh.  It sounded really grim.

But the other day I was at the library and there it sat, on the shelf.  Waiting for me.  So I took it home and began to read.  And yes, a lot of it is grim and depressing.  There is also a lot of what I would call social commentary about the current obesity epidemic as well as rumination by the narrator about her own body image.  Lionel Shriver is obviously a writer who is well read and very well informed and enjoys sneaking little tidbits of knowledge into her books; I particularly enjoyed two shout-outs to Belgium in the novel: she mentions not only the BMI or Quetelet index ("invented by some Belgian in the 1800's") but also the Higgs boson (for which fellow Belgian François Englert won the Nobel Physics prize this year).
But I can't really say I felt empathy for any of the characters in the book, except the step-daughter, who was the only one who seemed to genuinely love her obese uncle.  I raced through the book to find out what happened - reading it was like following a season of Biggest Loser, and the best part of the book, just like in the show, is the final weigh-in and the short lived celebration that follows.  Without wanting to spoil the plot twist at the end, I will say that I read the last paragraph of the final chapter several times.  At the end of the day, the book reveals its core question to be that of how much we are to hold ourselves responsible for other people and their problems.

As Shriver's main character, Pandora, says in that final paragraph: "It is impossible to gauge what you owe people.  Anyone of course, but especially the blood relation, for as soon as you begin to calculate the amount you're obliged to give - as soon as you begin to keep track, to parcel the benevolence out - you're done for...In preference to tackling the byzantine emotional mathematics of my exact responsibility for my brother, it was simpler to adjudge that I bore none.  But nothing in this life is free.  Having dodged paying the piper while [he] was alive, I pay now instead.  I pay every day."

I think what Pandora learned from her experience with her brother is that you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't, and that no matter what you might do to try to help someone, you're setting yourself up to be crucified in the end.   Which makes me think of the lines from a favorite Aimee Mann song: "Those eggshells I've been treading couldn't spare me a beheading." People want you to be involved and care about their problems, but they don't necessarily appreciate you stepping in and trying to solve them for them in the way you think might be most helpful. Which doesn't automatically imply that the ideal solution is to do nothing, either. It is a huge conundrum.

Perhaps Pandora would have done better to get some co-dependence counseling.  But then there wouldn't have been any drama for a book plot, would there?