Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Book Lover's Survey

Marilyn Monroe reading booksMarilyn Monroe reading books
Marilyn Monroe reading

I've posted a lot of book reviews on this blog, but not a lot about reading. I thought I'd start with the book lover's survey as seen on Emily's blog.

How did you develop a love for reading?

If there were anyone I were to thank for my love of reading it would probably be my mother (hi mum!). She taught me to read at three years old and it was pretty much what I spent my childhood doing. I was an advanced reader for my age and on occasion it led to me being excluded from activities with the other children in my class, and I have quite a few stories from my pre-teens on this topic. My favourite books around this time were often series. I'm a very character driven reader and once a character captures me I really enjoy being in their world and experiencing their life. Series that I remember loving as a pre-teen were Ursula le Guin's Earthsea quartet, Robin Jarvis' Deptford Mice trilogy, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings, and of course Harry Potter.

Where do you usually read?

In bed, using the light on my kindle cover. I have this one, and while it's not cheap, it's excellent. It protects the kindle really well and is nice to hold. I also read on the bus/tram when travelling, which I enjoy as it's calming and makes me look forward to the journey.

Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

I prefer to read one book at a time, but I always have more than one on the go.

What is your favourite genre?

Literary fiction.

Is there a genre you will not read?

As a hard and fast rule, no, as I find that pretty restricting. There are of course some genres I enjoy more than others. Genres I don't particularly enjoy are chick lit, romance, thrillers / crime, horror, and biographies. Having said that there have been books in those genres that I own and really enjoyed.

Do you have a favourite book?

Lord of the Rings.

What is your least favourite book?

I think this is an interesting question. I very rarely don't finish a book, and the books I have given up on I did for differing reasons. They have usually been too cliché, badly written or disturbing. Books that I didn't enjoy at the time but would still recommend are What Maisie Knew by Henry James and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.

What is the longest book you have ever read?

Lord of the Rings read as a whole book is pretty long, which is how I first read it as a pre-teen. I initially thought The Wings of the Dove by Henry James was the longest, but apparently Steve Job's biography by Walter Isaacson beats this. Unless you can count the Bible?

What was the last book you bought?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (review here) and Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James, both in the Kindle sale.

Do you prefer library books or buying books?

I much prefer buying books. Owning my favourite books is really important to me, and worth doing as I'm a re-reader. Having said that I will always defend the importance of libraries and book lending in the community.

What are you currently reading?

An assortment. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. To see more of what I'm reading you can add me as a friend on Goodreads here.

If you'd like to do the survey, feel free to write your answers or leave a link to your blog post in the comments, as I'd love to give them a read.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Books: my to-read list for #readwomen2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonThe Blind Assassin by Margaret AtwoodI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouNight and Day by Virginia WolfEvelina by Fanny BurneyUncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweLittle Women by Louisa May AlcottJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I always have a large pile of books on my to-read list, and this month is no exception. I'm currently making a conscious effort to read books written by women as part of #readwomen2014, so here's the ladies on my to-read list at the moment. The Blind Assassin will probably be the first of these I finish, as I have a newly acquired physical copy which I have marked for reading after I finish The Three Musketeers (Luke Pasqualino told me to!). I've also read several of Atwood's novels before and thought they were excellent (particularly Cat's Eye).

Shockingly, for a former literature student and classics lover, I haven't read Little Women or Jane Eyre. This fact remained a secret until now, as it's often amusing what conversations you can bluff your way through when people assume you have knowledge of [insert classic book here. As long as it's not James Joyce's Ulysees. No-one's read that.]. I have seen the 2006 BBC mini series adaption of Jane Eyre, but that doesn't make up for my lack of having read it. Little Women is the classic I'm most looking forward to reading, though. Joey's experience of reading it in Friends always makes me laugh.

The next book on my list is Evelina, or the history of a young lady's entrance into the world. I hadn't heard of this novel until recently, and decided I had to give it a read. I've already read the preface and really enjoyed it. Fanny Burney is extremely funny and clever in a very British way, much like Jane Austen. I also decided I had to read it as I share the same name as the character of the title - Eve.

If you've read any of these I'd love to know what you thought of them, and which you would recommend. You can also see the books I've already read as part of #readwomen2014 here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna TarttThe Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

The Goldfinch is the long-awaited third novel from American writer Donna Tartt, published in October last year. Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, is one of my favourite novels, making the top five in my list of favourite books of all time, so I was really looking forward to reading her latest offering.

The plot of The Goldfinch centres around the life of Theo, a young boy of divorced parents growing up in New York. In a visit to a museum to view the painting of the title, Theo and his mother are the victims of a terrorist bombing. Theo survives, and secretly takes the painting with him when he leaves the museum. Throughout the novel we follow Theo as he grows up and we see how his post-traumatic stress disorder, his obsession with the painting, and the relationships he has affect his life and the choices he makes. Two of Theo's primary relationships after the museum bombing are with antique dealer and restorer Hobie, who trains Theo to become a partner in the business, and Pippa, also a victim of the bombing, with whom Theo predictably becomes obsessed with. We also follow Theo for a brief but influential time living with his father in Las Vegas, where he meets a Russian boy Boris, who becomes a central character in the lives of Theo and of The Goldfinch painting.

The Goldfinch has many similarities both to its predecessor The Secret History and to general American literary canon like The Catcher in the Rye in that the main character is a typical disaffected American middle-class white male youth. To Tartt's credit, she writes Theo well and does a good job of getting inside his mindset and writes the reticence of men well. Theo is a post-modern 'hero' at a loss in society, alienated, and searching for the meaning of life in the wake of the museum bombing and the loss of his mother. An argument could be made for Theo as a tragic hero, as we do feel a certain sympathy for him, certainly at the start of the novel due to the bombing. As the novel continues, though, we see Theo continue to make bad decision after bad decision, from his continual abuse of drugs to his art dealings on the black market, and we start to loose sympathy for him.

It's important to note the lack of women and the stereotypes they fall under when they do appear in Tartt's novels. The main characters of the novel are Theo, his best friend Boris, and Theo's boss/partner in antiques, Hobie. The women in the novel- namely Theo's love interests Pippa and Kitsey, are secondary characters, but as far as personality go they remain elusive. The men in the novel have distinct and different personalities, such as the quiet Hobie, nerdy Andy and reckless Boris. In contrast, the personalities of the women only exist in relation to how they impact the men in the novel. The women who do not serve as love interests are subject to the madonna / whore dichotomy; firstly in the character of Theo's mother, who is killed, martyr-like, retaining her madonna status in an appearance in Theo's dreams, and secondly in the wicked stepmother/whore figure in Theo's father's girlfriend in Vegas, Xandra, a bar worker with a drug addiction.

Tartt, like her British counterpart Ian McEwan, is a very literary writer- you could say a writer's writer- and peppers her novels with references to literary history. In The Secret History the references are predominantly Ancient Greek, whereas in The Goldfinch the references are based around the painting above- The Goldfinch by the Flemish artist Carel Fabritius, and the art of antique dealing, conservation and restoration- in short, our fascination and attachment to objects based on their perceived value. I love Tartt's writing style but one feature of her writing really stood out for me. Tartt has a tendency to end a sentence that isn't a question with a question mark. This really stood out as she uses very few other colloquialisms or dialect, with the exception of some questionable and narratively unrealistic Russian English. It could be argued that the use of the question mark illustrates the speech patterns of the character, however I found it failed to add anything to the narrative and was jarring to read. That minor fault aside, I found my main problem with the novel was that it has been badly edited. This is the fault of the publishers, rather than Tartt herself, but since Tartt's novels are few and far between (it's been eleven years since her last novel) I feel she is being treated with kid gloves somewhat. The last chapter was rambling, unfocussed and vague and added very little to the novel (and this is coming from a philosophy graduate). It should have been cut completely, and the novel should have ended with Hobies' speech to Theo on our individual attachment to art at the end of Section 5.2.

Overall I would really recommend the novel if you're a fan of literary fiction, the American Catcher in the Rye novel tradition, coming of age novels, or long novels in general. I love long novels and and literary writing, and that's usually enough for me to forgive sins of plot or character, both of which could be criticised here.

Rating: 4/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Monday, March 24, 2014

#readwomen2014 Donna Tartt, P.D. James, Edith Nesbit and Jane Austen

The Goldfinch by DOnna TarttNorthanger Abbey by Jane AustenDeath Comes to Pemberly by PD JamesThe Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

I first heard about #readwomen2014 on Twitter at the start of the year. It's a campaign started by Joanna Walsh (you can read her original blog post here), which aims to increase the awareness of fiction written by women.

Equal representation of women in literature has always been a problem, from the pseudonym of George Eliot, to Joanne becoming "J.K." Rowling, to the still persistent lack of female authors being critically reviewed in the mainstream press. This is doubly frustrating when you take into consideration the current thriving community of female authors sharing their knowledge and experience online. Contemporary fiction also has a huge community of female readers; the majority of Booktubers (book-reviewing YouTubers) and their viewers are women. All this adds up to an exciting and diverse community of female writers and readers, which is one of the reasons #readwomen2014 really resonated with me. As Joanne said in The Guardian, "Everyone wants equality but few are willing to take responsibility or do the hard work." readwomen2014 holds you accountable- who will you read? What will you do? Which books by women will you recommend? I challenge you to take a look at your bookshelf (physical or virtual) and view the amount of authors that are male vs. those that are female. It's against the odds that the majority on your shelf will be by women, but now can be the time you change that for the better.

I won't pretend that all the books I've read this year have been by women. One of the major challenges for me so far this year has been the fact that my favourite genre is classics. Last year, despite my disinclination, I made a conscious effort to read more contemporary fiction. I discovered some gems and some duds, but I always return to the classics- and, of course, in the light of what has already been said- the majority of classics have historically been written by (dead, white) men. Keeping track of what I'm reading on Goodreads (you can follow me here) has held me accountable to the read women project though, and so far this year I've read:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (review here)
Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James
Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen (review here)
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
and I'm halfway through Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

I'm going to end this post with a (non comprehensive) list of female authors that I wholeheartedly recommend. Please feel free to recommend me female authors in return in the comments, or you can tweet me @evemariadust. I'm always looking for recommendations so I'd love to hear what you're reading for #readwomen2014.

Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit, Doris Lessing, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anna Sewell, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Maya Angelou, Sarah Walters, P.D. James, Hilary Mantel, Audrey Niffenegger, Zadie Smith, Phillipa Gregory, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Ursula le Guin.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I'm a longtime fan of Jane Austen but Northanger Abbey remained the only novel of hers unread. I was encouraged to read it by a Christmas viewing of the 2007 ITV film starring Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan. Northanger Abbey tells the tale of Catherine Morland, a naive teenage girl with a love for Gothic novels. Catherine is new to society and is excited about the prospect of making new acquaintances when she visits Bath with some family friends. There she makes friends with two sets of siblings: Isabella and John Thorpe, and Henry, Eleanor and Frederick Tilney. Catherine's two new sets of friends place conflicting demands on her time and opinions, and along with the reader, she has to learn to evaluate the character and motives of any new acquaintances. Over the course of the novel Catherine develops from a girl who always assumes the best of other's motives, into a more discerning character.

Northanger Abbey was a fascinating look into the perception and role of the novel in the lives of men and women in the 19th century. Catherine is a lover of Gothic novels, and at the end of the book learns that life is not as linear and carefully planned as a novel, which are written to excite and entertain, and in this way Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothic fiction. Catherine and Isabella are both fans of the Gothic novels, and Catherine assumes that Henry, Eleanor's brother and Catherine's love interest, as man, is not:-

C: "But you never read novels, I dare say?" / H: "Why not?" / C: "Because they are not clever enough for you- gentleman read better books." / H: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."

Northanger Abbey is full of little asides like these where Austen can be seen to talk directly to the reader in defending the novel form, or remarking upon its structure. A further example is at the very end of the novel, where Austen makes the remark that unlike the characters in the novel, as a reader, we can tell the lovers are to be married soon, by the short amount of pages that are left. This is perhaps something that is changing with the advent of eBooks and their ability to, on our command, show or hide from us the length of the text.

One of the things that impressed me the most about this novel was how well it showed the attitudes of women in the 19th century and how clear it was that Jane Austen was a highly perceptive, intelligent and funny woman. Her writing uses humour to cut right through the patriarchal attitudes of the time, and her books show how an intelligent woman could live in a society with so few options open to her- through social satire, observation, comedy and education. Northanger Abbey has numerous quotes that show that Austen was aware of how ridiculous the expectations and restrictions upon women were at that time, (in short, what a feminist she was) but to choose a few as examples:-

On marriage:
"In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable for the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties and exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, whilst she furnishes the fan and the lavender water." / "You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only has the power of refusal."

On friendship:
"If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body." / "The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference."

I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey, and find it improves upon further study into its themes and historical period. I would really recommend it for Austen fans, and it is quite accessible in terms of plot and length, being her shortest novel. You can download Northanger Abbey on Kindle for free, and the book is available to buy for only £1.99.

Rating: 3/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle / DVD. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: Filth by Irvine Welsh

Filth Irvine Welsh James McAvoy Filth Irvine Welsh James McAvoyFilth Irvine Welsh James McAvoy

"That's the right idea though that Toal's got. Get as many voices in your head as you can and hide in the crowd." - Filth by Irvine Welsh

Filth was a novel I've been wanting to read for a while, and when I discovered James McAvoy was set to star in the film released this autumn I knew I had to read it before then. I'm a huge fan of the film version of Trainspotting and love Irvine Welsh for bringing its themes and distinctive style of storytelling into the mainstream, but it was Filth the novel that really made me a fan of his works.

Welsh, famous for the drug-riddled film that launched Ewan McGregor's career, writes not unsympathetically about the underbelly of Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, and the filth that lies beneath its deceptively civilised veneer. Filth is about a corrupt policeman, Bruce Robertson, who is sexist, racist, homophobic, sectarian, and addicted to sex, porn and drugs. The book starts with the murder of a black journalist and loosely chronicles Bruce and his police colleagues as they search for the killers. The book, written in the first person, details Bruce's descent into the filth he surrounds himself with in order to escape from and deny reality, and his inability to deal with his underlying mental health problems.

A second narrator appears about 1/3 of the way into the book, in the form of a tapeworm living in Bruce's intestines, and it's through the tapeworm we learn Bruce's backstory. This is an example of Welsh's experimental storytelling, both in terms of a narrative/plot device and in terms of the physicality of the text- the tapeworm's voice literally overlaps Bruce's narrative on the page, obscuring our ability to read Bruce's thoughts until the tapeworm is sated. The tapeworm begins to talk by simply urging Bruce to eat, and then slowly reveals Bruce's traumatic and violent beginnings in life.

Filth definitely benefits from a second reading as it takes time to make sense of Bruce's backstory and why he deals with situations the way he does. It also takes time for the reader to appreciate how and why Bruce's understanding of events differs from those around him. There's a scene where Bruce and Lennox make a house call to a drug user and they persuade him to pass them information by threatening him with a story about a man incarcerated for multiple violent rapes nicknamed 'the beast'- a serial rapist. It is only much, much later, from the mouth of the tapeworm, that we learn (spoiler alert!) that this is in fact Bruce's birth father, who raped his mother as a teenager. It is slowly revealed that Bruce suffers from severe mental illness, and has done for many years, and how this has affected his relationships with his wife and colleagues. The novel shows an interesting take on mental illness, and brings the nature/nurture debate to light. Did Bruce become mentally ill and behave reprehensibly‎ due to his father and his genes, or was it his upbringing and treatment as a criminal before he had done anything wrong, that caused him to behave in this way? Or a combination of both?

Filth was also a breath of fresh air in its representation of Scottish attitudes towards women, particularly when contrasted with the fact that representations of women in the media tend to be of a madonna/whore dichotomy. In Filth there are plenty of 'hoors' (the book is written in Scots dialect) and Bruce's abuse of a barely legal schoolgirl is particularly reviling, but what's refreshing is the sexual agency of all the women in the novel. For women in the novel, sex is a normal and varying part of their lives, not just in its emotional implications but in the physicality of it too. Two women in the novel who might appear to be victims at first, take back their agency after creating satisfactory sexual experiences for themselves.

I'd definitely recommend Filth to those who are fans of psychological thrillers and murder mysteries. If you enjoyed Girl, Interrupted or American Psycho, or, of course, Trainspotting, you will like Filth. If you like more modern murder mysteries like Gone Girl you might also be a fan of Filth. I enjoyed reading it just as much a second time, and it increased the depth of my understanding of the novel. Filth also gave me a lot to think about, from Scottish literature, to representations of the police force, women, sex and mental illness. I think it would be a good book for a book club discussion as there is a lot to unpack in a fairly short novel.

Rating: 5/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle / DVD. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh

“Everyone seems to have been talking about the younger generation tonight.
The most boring subject I know.”
“Well, after all, what does all this stand for if there’s going to be no-one to carry it on?”
“All what?”
Mr. Outrage looked around the supper-room, deserted except for two footmen who lent against the walls looking as waxen as the clump of flowers sent up that morning from hot-houses in the country.
“What does all what stand for?”
“All this business of government.”
“As far as I’m concerned it stands for a damned lot of hard work and precious little in return.
If those young people can find a way to get on without it, good luck to them.”

- Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies is a novella that details the life of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s and 30s- young, without responsibilities, unmarried and for the most part moneyed, the BYT's partied their way through the post-WWI years, drawing criticism and scandal with them wherever they went. Where Fitzgerald chronicled the American lifestyle in The Great Gatsby and The Beautiful and the Damned, Waugh shows us life in England, complete with Parliament, Lords, and scandals around the Prime Minister and his daughters. Waugh's novel loosely follows a small group of Bright Young People and details the various difficulties they get themselves into, mostly through their own negligence. The characters are childish, irresponsible, and very much an example of Fitzgerald's "careless people" (The Great Gastby, pg. 166). They act without thinking about the consequences of their own actions and what the future may hold. They do what they want, giving into their impulses, and expect other people to clear up the mess they make.

For a book centred around the Bright Young Things and their supposedly debauched parties and scandalous lives, the absence of action from the text is notable. The main character, Adam Fenwick-Symes, sleeps through two parties, and the Bright Young Things are constantly avoiding taking action on anything, despite appearing to others (society, the press, and the reader) to be at the centre of it. Examples of this avoidance include Adam sleeping through parties, Nina and Adam being absent from Agatha Runcible's funeral, and the Bright Young Things drinking at the bar during both the start of the motor car race and during Agatha's crash. Like an exclusive party for Hollywood VIPs, when the party is given its close-up, it appears rather lacking.

Also notable for its absence in the text is the almost complete lack of sex and sexuality, particularly of interest in a novel entitled: 'Vile Bodies'. Adam and Nina are engaged and become lovers, but neither seem particularly enthralled of it, particularly Nina, and neither seem excited by each other's bodies or have any sense of sexuality. As well as being disinterested in many things, (one example of common BTY slang being the word 'bogus') Adam and Nina seem disinterested in both their own bodies and other peoples, to such an extent that when Adam lays his head in Nina's lap at a party, a gesture that could have tillatious undertones is interpreted as childlike, when he promptly falls asleep and misses the party. The supposed orgies that the BYT's parties were scandalised for are also absent.

So for a novel lacking in character development and mainly devoid of plot, what is the attraction? One answer lies in its style. Waugh saw writing "not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me." (Introduction to Vile Bodies, Penguin Modern Classics edition).

Waugh keeps description to a minimum, and focuses on short superficial extracts of dialogue between a small cast of characters, very much like the reality TV show Made in Chelsea. If Vile Bodies were a reality show, it's no small stretch of the imagination to say MIC would be it, although the detachment of TV as a medium could run the risk of making Waugh's irony less pronounced. In terms of authorial style, none of the characters are particularly well developed, which can make it challenging for the reader to empathise with them. Like the content of gossip columnist Mr Chatterbox's column (in the novel the late Lord Balcairn, and after his suicide, Adam), Vile Bodies is brief but colourful. Waugh forgoes character development and plot, and makes use of dialogue as a means of satirising English society of the 1920s/30s. Many events in the novel are based on real events, such as the death of the leader of the house of lords, the lives of the Mitford sisters, and the Cavendish Hotel as a meeting point for many Bright Young Things.

I'd recommend this book to Evelyn Waugh fans, Fitzgerald fans, and anyone interested in the history of post-WW1 society in England. I'd also recommend this book to anyone interested in the role of dialogue in the novel, particularly when contrasted with plot and character development and what the implications of this can be for the reader.

Rating: 3/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle / DVD. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

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