Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Love Is...

Have finished Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

A strange but very moving little novel - Winterson's first, and an exploration of her conflicted upbringing (it is so obviously a disguised autobiography).

The main character, Jeanette, is brought up in her adopted parents' (well, mother's) strict religious home in northern England. At first, Jeanette accepts her mother's strange and fanatical ways; she knows nothing else, and becomes used to the fact that others see her and her family as outsiders. She is not prepared for the backlash and moral outrage when she innocently falls in love with another girl - to Jeanette, love is love - she just happens to love a girl, not a boy.

The novel brings up questions of faith v morality, or one person's interpretation of it. Jeanette cannot reconcile in her head that one kind of love is the ONLY kind of love, according to her mother's religious beliefs. She is hurt and bewildered by her religious community's decision to portray her as an evil-spirited outcast, and resorts to creating allegorical fantasies to comfort her in her decision to leave to live her own life.

As a person who is non-religious but spiritual, I found Jeanette's conflicting feelings fascinating, and felt for her in her confusion and helplessness - and felt anger towards the people who, having preached and taught love and acceptance, cannot accept someone who is willing to give so much, just because she is "different".

I definitely want to read more of Winterson's work when I have the time.

Next up: Back to good old Mr Dickens...Martin Chuzzlewit.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Remembrance Of Things Past

Have finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

What a beautifully crafted and palpably poignant novel. The sadness and wistful feelings of almost all of the characters felt incredibly real - and prescient, even though the novel was written in 1925; the world-weary post-war feeling resonates even today.

Clarissa, Peter, Rezia (and even Sally, to a certain extent, even though she is the most outwardly confident and seemingly happy about her current life) all ponder on what could have been, and what is. Woolf is writing of her time, when social restrictions were just that - restrictions - and one couldn't do as one really desired.

I feel that Woolf was also incredibly brave to write about a subject that was still (at that time) much debated and misunderstood - shell shock. The character of Septimus suffers profoundly from this condition (having survived World War I), and is completely misdiagnosed by his pompous doctor. His wife Rezia knows that her husband has never been well, and desperately wants him to be so, but loves him enough to know that the doctor doesn't always know best. Septimus's trains of thought throughout the novel are incredibly touching, and give an insight into how countless other young men like him must have felt - and how they were summarily dealt with as if they weren't ill.

The structure of the novel was also quite beautiful - the reader is allowed to dip in and out of these characters' lives as an independent observer, but when allowed to observe, sees the depth of emotion in each character and how they touch others around them.

Sigh. More, please.

Up next: Have already started Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

No Jokes This Time

Finished We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver yesterday.

Unbelievably powerful and harrowing book. One of those novels I didn't want to put down, but read with trepidation nonetheless.

Told in an epistolary style, it details a mother's desperate attempt to understand why her son has committed a horrific deed (I won't be giving too much away by saying that it was a school massacre).

The novel brings up lots of modern debates about what makes a good parent; if children are born a certain way, and if so, is there any point trying to parent them at all? Eva (Kevin's mother) admits in her letters that she isn't a good mother, but also that Kevin is not a good child.

The detail in which Eva describes her feelings and actions and Kevin's misdeeds is shocking, but completely believable. She knows that her parenting skills are not up to scratch, but she makes it clear that her heart wasn't in it for most of the time - especially when dealing with the malevolent force that is Kevin.

In her quest to understand why Kevin did what he did, Eva naturally brings up several actual school shootings and compares them to Kevin's crime - Kevin himself knows every intimate detail. In discussing these events, Shriver brings up the debate of how these incidents are handled in the media, and how more of these events might be triggered (and indeed, virtually encouraged) by the overwhelming attention given to them by the nation's media.

Fascinating, sad, heartbreaking. Odd to say that I enjoyed reading this novel, but I did.

Up next: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Kissin' Cousins

Finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy yesterday.

Sorry it's taken me a while to post, but...I really want to be eloquent and articulate when writing this blog, and this novel...well, I find it difficult to be eloquent and articulate about a novel that just left me cold.

Hardy is a novelist who specialized in running commentaries about the class system in England in the nineteenth century and how people in rural areas (what he called "Wessex") struggled within this class system.

I found the novel's concepts and characterizations completely out of date and therefore out of touch. Jude (to use colloquial language), to me, was a complete drip. I understood that he wanted to make something better of himself, and that he struggled to prove his intelligence to the university elite, but thought that he had no conviction or strength of character to follow through with his dreams - he could have gone anywhere, but was obsessed with one town, one university, one way of learning. He was never going to get very far with this obsession.

And as for his relationship with his cousin Sue...she was also a bit of a drip, but in a different way. She couldn't make her mind up about how to behave, either. Should she stay with her respectable yet dull husband? Should she follow Jude wherever he goes? Should she submit to her wifely duties, or assert her independence? The woman didn't have the conviction to follow her academic dreams either.

Both characters deserved each other in that they lacked courage and the wherewithal to deal with their unconventional beliefs and lifestyle. As I said before, what a pair of drips. Argh.

Up next: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Fast forward to the 21st century.

Monday, 4 May 2009

One I Could Really Sink My Teeth Into....sorry!

Have finished Dracula by Bram Stoker.

I had varying expectations going into this one, as I have seen the florid, over-the-top, highly romantic (and therefore to me, enjoyable) 1992 film adaptation of Dracula.

Wow...what a difference. All I can say is...the filmmakers took lots of liberties with the plot lines. Embellishment everywhere.

The novel itself is much quieter and stiller, and much more sinister for being so. Stoker gives no reason for Dracula's behaviour, other than pure blood lust - there are no romantic motives for his actions.

I found that Stoker made Mina a much stronger female character than I thought she would be. Her gentle yet steely strength saves her and the men around her, who feel initially that she should be sheltered from their quest to destroy Dracula. Another strong female character introduced before her time.

I also really liked the novel in its epistolary form - this way, the reader gets to see how different characters feel about the same situation - it also exposes the characters' flaws and deepest thoughts, which they cannot express verbally.

More of this, please!

Next up: Jude the Obscure, the first of several Thomas Hardy novels on the list.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Brighton Rocks

Finished Brighton Rock by Graham Greene yesterday.

Really, really enjoyed this one. A crime novel, thriller and morality tale all wrapped up in a strange love letter to Brighton.

I've only read one other Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, and I have a feeling that the other Greene novels on the list will have the similar theme of tortured Catholicism running through them.

Pinkie is one of the most soulless, evil, sociopathic characters I have ever encountered in a novel, which makes his ambivalence about his strong faith and repulsion when experiencing even the slightest twinge of desire fascinating.

Greene's portrayal of Ida as a strong female figure in 1930s England was also most refreshing. Here was a woman who had her own moral compass; who knew right from wrong and wanted justice above all else - and wasn't going to give up until she got it. Greene was ahead of his time, perhaps without knowing it.

And of course, the character of Brighton - my favourite British city after London. Greene vividly portrays the smell of the sea air, the grubbiness of the pubs and restaurants, the faded grandeur of the seafront hotels.

Looking forward to reading more of this very interesting author's work.

Up next: Have already started Dracula by Bram Stoker...a bit of late Gothic horror, anyone?