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August 2015 Reading Round-Up

August’s been a busy month. The Worm Hole met Of Books and discovered many great book stores, including City Books. I read a lot, happily, but still in moderation to hopefully forestall what seems to be the inevitable slump following a good run. And I re-started Final Fantasy XIII, which I’d abandoned for the longest time. It seems summer’s been quick – partly because August’s weather has been questionable – but it’s been a long time since I was sat on a bench in the garden of my retreat centre reading Mary Ann Shaffer.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Annie O’Neil: Doctor… To Duchess? – Julia is doing well at her new surgery in her new village until the heir to the Earldom returns from war. A pretty good romance with well-written inner dialogues and a good setting.

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Berhard Schlink: The Reader – At fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman and years later sees her once more, this time in a war trial. Fantastic.

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Claire Watts: How Do You Say Gooseberry In French? – Molly holidays in France with her penpal, watching her friend enjoying herself until she realises she can be, too. Great summer read that shares the atmosphere of The Enchanted April.

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Horace Walpole: The Castle Of Otranto – Prince Manfred tries to get his sickly son wed in order to continue his line but a giant helmet falls on the boy before it can be accomplished. Rambles a lot and isn’t the best gothic novel (though it was the first).

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Irène Némirovsky: The Misunderstanding – A poor man and a rich woman have a relationship but cannot understand the life of the other. It may not be Suite Française but it’s up there.

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Jo Walton: Among Others – Mori spends most of her time reading as she lives through grief, and spends a bit of time with fairies. Not bad but too much time is spent commenting on books.

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Meike Ziervogel: Kauthar – A white convert to Islam struggles with her desires for love and a stronger identity. Excellent.

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R J Gould: A Street Café Named Desire – When David is suddenly dumped by his wife, he finds love with an old classmate and the custodial parent of his children. Well characterised, nicely British and very funny but the editing in the second half lets it down.

My favourite this month was The Reader, which wins over Kauthar by virtue of the fact length meant more could be covered. I must thank Alice for the Schlink. I also had a fantastic time with Watt’s book; it really is excellent and I’d recommend it to most people. Némirovsky, as always, needs a shout out.

Quotation Report

I’ve quotes this month but can’t deal with them in my usual way – Auschwitz is not something you can joke about. So I’ll simply tell you that there are many note-worthy passages in The Reader.

Okay autumn, let’s do this.

What was your favourite read this month?

Reading Life: 31st August 2015

A photograph of flowers

I’ve read a lot this month; for now the slump is at bay and I’m going with the flow, taking breaks between books when it makes sense to (days out, for example) and any ‘must be reading’ thoughts are being acted on only if it’s because I want to read for leisure. I’m hoping this phase lasts.

It seems literary fiction might be more important to me than I thought. Of course I love themes and subjects that can be discussed, but I’ve found going along with my desire to read more of them and pushing away the inevitable anxiety that accompanies them – the ‘this review is going to be hard work’ anxiety – makes me a happy reader. I’ve been mixing literary Young Adult, bog standard literary fiction, and some general fiction and really loving it. And I’m just reading some awesome books.

Yesterday I started The Castle Of Otranto. It’s been on my list for ages and with just two days left of the month I want to see if I can fit another book in. (They may mostly be novellas but there is something satisfying about a high number.) It goes on a bit sometimes and certainly an editor would have a field day with it nowadays, but there’s enough suspence and a creepy feeling that means it’s still a good read. Reading it has made me remember that Catherine Morland recommends Ann Radcliffe. In researching Horace Walpole I discovered his house, Strawberry Hill, which has gone straight on my list of places I want to see. The Walpole is on my Classics Club list which means I will have crossed off another measly one entry. I think I probably should’ve thought more about modern classics when I typed it up as I’m reading up a storm when it comes to the early 1900s, but I’ll take this book released in 1760 and be proud of the minor progress.

I mentioned brieftly meeting Alice of OfBooks. we met earlier this month and Alice showed me round the markets and bookstores of Brighton. City Books, her favourite, is a place I’d recommend making a priority if you go to Brighton, it’s one of those bookstores wherein you just know the staff are thinking about their customers rather than what the publishers want to sell.

It was during this trip I bought The Reader. I may have been overcome at the end.

August has been quite a month. We’ve had mostly awful weather, constant rain, that makes me wonder if we’ll see another random day of hot sunshine in November as happened a few years ago. We welcomed my friend’s baby into the world. Our circle has expanded to include little people and it’s rather nice. I’ve visited a couple more castles and historic houses – the presence of Henry VIII looming large as usual – and took a mini holiday. I discovered country music to the happiness of a relative who said it’s time. I witnessed my young nephew flying a kite – the first of our family to do so successfully. It’s been quite a summer.

What have you been reading and, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, how was your summer?

Irène Némirovsky – The Misunderstanding

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Because communication isn’t always the problem.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-56384-6
First Published: 1926
Date Reviewed: 26th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding)
Translated by: Sandra Smith

Yves spots Denise when her child throws sand over him; he is entranced from that moment. The two begin an affair as Denise’s husband leaves for work and continue seeing each other for the remainder of their holidays. Back in Paris, it’s not the same. Yves, once rich, has to work for a living, whilst Denise lives in luxury; and that is just the start.

The Misunderstanding is one of those novellas in which the reader is privy to the issues at hand and will see that the couple have a lot to work on if they’re going to be in with a chance. It was Némirovsky’s first book, so it’s not as polished as others – the language is overly detailed, romantic, and the author favours angst for angst sake – but nevertheless it’s exquisite – even as a twenty-one year old this writer knew her stuff.

In the foreword, Sandra Smith states that the French version of ‘misunderstanding’ Némirovsky uses means three different things: a specific event; ‘the person who is misunderstood'; ‘incompatibility’. It’s a good thing to note because it is indeed that way in the story. There are a couple of events, one in particular, that cause the couple problems. Neither Yves nor Denise understand each other, understand the other’s life and where they’re coming from. And this, perhaps more so than their respective rank in life, causes their incompatibility.

This incompatibility has to be explored. In a past life, or, rather, if Yves had remained rich (he lost his parents’ fortune during the war) the two would be very compatible. The main thing that gets in the way is the financial distance, the difference between luxury and necessity. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a problem if Yves didn’t feel so hard done by (he is constantly in debt because he lives above his means, trying to emulate his childhood) but Denise’s relative obliviousness to her lover’s situation creates distance all by itself. Yves can’t go out in the evenings, he needs to sleep – something Denise cannot understand on a fundamental level. So Yves resents Denise, resents the way she’s overbearing in her love, and in pushing her away as he starts to do, Denise resents him in turn. She listens to her mother’s advice and applies it to her relationship, and it works up to a point, but she pushes it too far.

In some respects The Misunderstanding can be compared to The Great Gatsby – the love of a once penniless soldier compared to the once rich man. A topic often discussed is whether Jay Gatsby would ultimately be happy if he had Daisy, and this is something we could ask of Yves. Does Yves love Denise because she represents what he was and would like to be? Doubtless he believes they would’ve had an easier time were he still rich, but then things would have been different across the board.

Yves’s feelings on the divide are summed up by this line:

“When I’m with her… I always have to be mentally wearing a dinner jacket.”

Would Denise accept him if he were poor and didn’t proffer to pay for expensive luxuries as he does? The chapters written from Denise’s point of view suggest that she would, but then if she is unable, as Némirovsky notes, to understand his relative poverty, she is surely living a sort of fantasy.

Yves cannot see what is in front of him any more than Denise can. It would take the reader breaking the forth wall from their side and stepping into the novella themselves to patch things up to a good level. Denise’s mother has it right; she knows what’s going on and has good advice, but there is a level of pain, hurt, that has been somewhat manufactured by Yves and Denise that stops them breaking the barriers between them. Self-loathing runs smoothly in this book, informing everything.

So The Misunderstanding is not on the same page as Suite Française, nor, even, Fire In The Blood (a book with content that’s not as complex or as likely to bowl you over as this one), but it’s incredible nonetheless. It’s quite obviously the work of a new, young, fearless writer who has yet to learn that flowery language doesn’t make a good book, but at the same time it’s also the work of someone with an immense understanding of her subject and the knowledge and empathy to write it well.

Should you read it? Oh, but you must!

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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