30 Sep 2010

Where do you read? Part 1

These days I mostly read while I am on the bus travelling to and from work. However, I do actually have favourite places to read and some books I have loved more, simply because I have read them in the right atmosphere. I have a few favourite reading spots that I want to share with you, here is the first one. On this beach in the Italian town of Levanto - close to the Cinque Terre - I have spent some wonderful hours reading only interrupted by an occasional forray into the turquoise water.

Lying in the sun, listening to the people chatter around me in Italian and smelling the salty water, I got lost in the world of "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. Every time I read little snippets of this book, I feel myself transported back there and it makes the book even better than it already is! Have you any favourite reading spots?

29 Sep 2010

"We need to talk about Kevin" - Why?

When "We Need to Talk about Kevin" was published few years ago, it stirred up a lot of hype and the author Lionel Shriver became a celebrity in the literary world. I think all that hype scared me a bit, at least I never got around to reading the book. Maybe I was also scared of the epistolary form, something I am normally a bit repelled by. Not sure why. But the other day I felt like I really should read it and my curiousity won over my scepticism about the form. Luckily. Because this book is seriously good! An absolute classic.

The story is one, we know only too well. A boy brings a weapon to school and kills both school children, a teacher and a canteen worker. This leaves his mother, Eva, with the big question. Why?
Eva tells the story from her point of view in a series of letters to her estranged husband. It is a mother's anguished feelings put on display and Eva honestly and openly confesses that actually she never wanted Kevin in the first place and when he came into her life, she never warmed to him. Eva's story about Kevin is that he is inherently evil, a child that does everything to wex or hurt her.
However, Eva is not a reliable narrator. Her story obviously differs from the way her husband sees the family and she is biased in her interpretations of Kevin's actions.
It is a moving, disturbing, beautiful story.

The book raises several questions about parenting. It is the classic nature versus nurture dilemma. Does Keving go on a killing spree because he is inherently evil? Or because life has dealt him a tough hand and he is shaped by being brought up by a cold, loveless mother?
"We Need to Talk about Kevin" does not offer answers, only questions and the reader is left with the ultimate questios: why? Only one questions is actually answered: why did this book win the Booker Prize? Because it is a very very good book, beautifully written with a strong story.

26 Sep 2010

"Love's Shadow" - Love and let love

Do you like the comedic parts of Jane Austen's novels? Do you enjoy romantic entaglements and witty repartee? Then look nu further than "Love's Shadow" by Ada Leverson. It has been reprinted as part of the Bloomsbury Group and it defintely deserves being reprinted as it is a little gem of a book: funny, sweet and well-written with spot-on portraits of a group of people in Edwardian London.
Edith and Bruce Ottley lives in an apartment - a small apartment, that Bruce habitually describes as much grander than it really is and consequently he doesn't want too many visitors. They have less money than Bruce spends and he has less talent and less intelligence than he credits himself with. He is the male version of Mrs. Bennett. Luckily he has kind, understanding, forgiving Edith who is friends with the glamorous Hyancinth Verney who falls in love easily and recovers just as easily until she meets Cecil Reeve. Reeve is in love with a widow much older than himself - how will Hyacinth win him over?
I really enjoyed this little book - my only real complaint is that it is too short. I wanted to know more when I came to the end. The characters are enjoyable, especially the strange relationship between Bruce and Edith fascinated me. How did she end up with a man like him? I would really like to understand that. And how does she cope with his incessant warped self-understanding and his less than truthful truths? I did not find Hyacinth as interesting though the relationship between her and her guardian Sir Charles and his wife Lady Cannon was really interesting, especially towards the end of the book. Again, how did he end up married to her? But the romance between Hyacinth and Cecil Reeve had me less fascinated, I honestly do not understand what she sees in him.
Not understanding why certain people fall in love with each other seem to be a recurrent theme in this book. The characters are all married to people with whom they seem incompatible and at some point there must have been love or at least attraction there. A fascinating subject, especially when you take into consideration that the story is set during a time when divorces were not abundant as they are today. Let me close off the review with a quote that sums up the mechanics of the marriage between Lady Cannon and Sir Charles brilliantly:
"Lady Cannon had a very exalted opinion of her own charms, virtues, brilliant gifts, and, above all, of her sound sense. Fortunately for her, she had married a man of extraordinary amiability, who had always taken every possible precaution to prevent her discovering that in this opinion she was practically alone in the world." (pp. 22)

21 Sep 2010

"Lolita" - The Age of Innocence Lost

Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" had been on my TBR list for years and finally it landed on my doorstep the other day, thanks postman :-) Last week I was traveling with work so had to spend lots of time on a plane and in airports - which means lots of time to read! Lovely. I brought Lolita with me and from the very first sentence I was pulled into the grotesque, distorted world of Humbert Humbert, the infamous key character in "Lolita".
The story is well-know, so well-know that the name Lolita has come to signify girls who have sexual power over men much much older than themselves. At least I thought that I knew the story but really I just had a vague idea about it. So here is a short summary for those of you who know the story as little as I did.
Humbert Humbert grew up in Europe and ends up living with a widower and her teenage daughter. He is attrached to and becomes enthralled by the girl .
o the teenage girl Dolores - whom he nicknames Lolita - and in a desperate attempt to stay near her, he marries her mother. When his wife dies, Lolita has no other adult in the world to trust and so Humbert gets a power over her that she can hardly escape.
Humbert Humbert is attracted to children - girls from the age of nine whom he classifies as nymphets in an unconscious try to glorify his obsession with them. No no he is no villain, he is only interested in girls who encourage it themselves... This is a villain who does his utmost to conceal the hideousness of his mind, the awful crimes he commits towards a orphaned girl. Sometimes he does this so well that as a reader it is easy to identify with him - he reflects so very little on the impact his selfish behaviour has on Lolita. Lolita has grown up wild, going her own way and acting very much like a spoiled teenager who believes herself an adult - and then every now and then her facade breaks and we get a glimpse at a little girl.
It is a heartbreaking book in many ways about a man who forces adulthood on a teenage girl who doesn't know herself and her own boudaries and who are more or less dependent on him. At the same time it is the story of a child who gets an immense power over an adult and who in the ends brings about his downfall.
"Lolita" in some ways reminds me of "The Sopranos" by Alan Warner - both books tell the tale of the difficulty of growing up and of girls being forced to face their own sexuality.
It is a beautiful book and touching and if you haven't read it, please put it on your TBR list.

13 Sep 2010

"The Stars In the Bright Sky" - The adventures of the bright and the dim

During my teenage years my absolute favourite book was "The Sopranos" by Alan Warner. It was an epiphany when I first read it b
because the language, the topics, the girls it described was so incredibly different from the books I normally read. These Catholic girls from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour were the original ladettes, forever in pursuit of mischief and a good time. When I found out that Warner had written a sequel, I had to have it. And this morning I turned the last pages of "The Stars in the Bright Sky" on the bus to work. It was amazing - I am already looking forward to reading it again, as it is such a fascinating tale. The girls are the same Scottish wildcats as in "The Sopranos" - only they have matured and have grown ever so slightly apart. Finn has moved to London to study philosophy, Manda has become a single mother who drinks too many Guiness Extra Colds, Kylah and Chell are still living in the town and Kay is studying architecture. Their lives have taken different turns but now they are meeting up in Gatwick Airport to go on vacation together - a last minute deal, possibly to Magaluf, definitely not to Turkey. With them is posh, English Ava - Finn's friend from uni. Altogether a dangerous cocktail.
However, things do not go according to plan. A disappearing passport, much too much luggage, too many drinks all play a big part in these few days that the girls spend holidaying in the airport. I won't go into details about the plot, as I don't want to give away anything.
One of the aspects of the book that I really like - or am fascinated by - is the "drinks lists" that Warner uses to describe the girls. He lists what the girls drink and the drinks are obvious pointers as to who they are. So Manda is constantly drinking her Guiness Extra Cold - though at one point mixing it with champagne - while Kay mostly drinks red wine. For some reason this appeals to be - possibly because the drinks are so predictable and and in their predictability confirms how well I know these girls.
But if you haven't read "The Sopranos" and met these wonderful Scottish lassises then get both "The Sopranos" and "The Stars in the Bright Sky" and settle down for an amazing ride with a bunch of ladies and ladettes who at times act quite dum but always shine brightly.

9 Sep 2010

"The Fingersmith" - Who's fooling who?

After ready so much praise of "The Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters on blogs, in newspaper reviews etc. I finally decided to give it a go. Not sure why I haven't done so before because it is just the kind of book I enjoy! It reminds me of "Slammerkin" and "The Life Mask" by Emma Donoghue and it is really ejoyable. The plot is full of twists and turns and I really didn't see any of coming. It was such a pageturner and I really had a hard time turning off the light last night before I was done reading it.
Basically it is about two girls whose fates are inextricably linked. Sue Trinder grows up in the poor London streets of Borough, south of the river, among thieves and swindlers. She has questionable morals but a good heart and it is with some worry that she agrees to a plot to snare a young aristocratic woman and steal her fortune. The young woman in question, Maud Lilly, lives in a country estate with her neurotically strict uncle who collects lewd pornographic books. When these two girls meet, their fates change forever.
If you like mysteries, books about women taking control of their own destinies, then read this book. It is so wonderful.

6 Sep 2010

"101 Reykjavik" - 101 girls and 1 lonesome Icelandic guy

Meet Hlynur Bjorn, a strange character invented by Icelandic author Hallgrimur Helgason. Hlynur is an unemployed thirty-something loner/loser who still lives with his mother (who by the way buys his underwear) and whose primary relationships are with the Internet, the satellite TV, and a few friends who resembles him.
"101 Reykjavik" is the tale of Hlynur and the women he spends most of his time thinking about. All women are rated on scale depending on looks - a scale that Hlynur himself would definitly not top.
Hlynur's mother comes out as a lesbian and her girlfriend Lolla moves in, meanwhile Hlynur is still somewhat tangled up in a relationship with his exgirlfriend. This is a comic, dark tale with lots of funny moments as Hlynur describes his difficulties with ladies and his many trials as he accidentally impregnates not one, not two but three women... Quite an achievement when you take into consideration how little masculinity Hlynur actually possesses.

Helgason captures the rough beauty of Iceland (if you haven't been there do go, it is amazing!) and the smallness of its capital Reykjavik. A city where everybody knows everyone and where nothing can be kept a secret. It is also a poignant commentary on modern life, especially the bizarre ways that sex is everywhere - on TV and the internet.
It is a narrative that sometimes repulses but mostly amsuses.

And this is number two in my quest to complete the Scandinavian Reading Challenge!

3 Sep 2010

Dreaming of these books...

Some books are fine to borrow from the library or from friends but there are some books that I simply must own. Books that I need to have on my bookshelves where I can enjoy the sight of them and pick them up whenever I feel like reading them. Smoe of the books that are high on my list of "must buys" are these:

"A Good School" by Richard Yates

"The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikail Bulgakov

"Those Barren Leaves" by Aldous Huxley

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

"Nightwood" by Djuna Barnes

"Save Me the Waltz" by Zelda Fitzgeral

2 Sep 2010

"Love in Idleness" - Idling in the sun

Have you ever felt the Tuscan summer sunshine on your skin? If yes, then you will have a bit of an idea about the atmosphere in "Love in Idleness" by Amanda Craig. It takes place in Cortona in the heart of Tuscancy and the pages are soaked with golden sunshine and the smell of Italian herbs. I must say that I enjoyed that part of the book, it enveloped me in a wonderful summer feeling.
The author acknowledges that the plot is heavily inspired by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Nights Dream", it is not the first book to be inspired by this wonderful tale and it is a great plot. In "Love in Idleness" it has been updated and changed but the main topics remain.
There are several key figures: Polly the banker's wife and stay-at-home mum married to workaholic Theo, the doctor and single mother Hemani, gorgeous designer Ellen, eligible bachelor Daniel, the notorious Ivo Sponge and the meanest mother-in-law that I have encoutered in a long time.
As you can probably imagine, many many things happen and love strikes in the strangest places.
To be honest, the plot is a bit too easy to guess, I think. There really were no surprises at all and though it was great to meet Ivo Sponge again (he played a central role in "A Vicious Circle"), there was not enough excitement to really keep me interested. It is a nice, sweet story and I laughed a few times but it is a little bit too chick lit-ish for me - I preferred "A Vicious Circle".