This month saw the end of the Victorian madness – well, more or less. I managed to include a couple of books just for my own pleasure, but it was quickly back to school again. I’ve just realised that this is how it will probably be until summer, as I’ve managed to choose a lot of courses with several books to read. And on top of that all the background reading for the final paper. Oh well. There’s always retirement for reading what you wish…
William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair
Two young women, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy together. They are friends, yet the witty and flirtatious Becky looks set to outdo the passive, sweet-natured Amelia with her ruthless determination to grab what she can in life. And so all kinds of battles and fortunes are won and lost against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars.
Thackeray’s satire on corruption at every level of English society is rightly subtitled ‘a novel without a hero’, since none of its characters have improved themselves by the end. However, it was a success from its first appearance in 1847 and remains one of the greatest comic novels.
(back cover of Arcturus 2010 edition)
At first, it wasn’t at all what I’d expected, although very amusing and rather engaging. Then, around halfway, I was so stressed and tired it was a pain to read. The brutal schedule did very little for this book – but oh gods, when I got to the end, I was completely in love. It’s funny, and insightful, and full of wonderful characters, although all of them have their flaws. It’s Regency. There’s the war. There’s the society. There’s life.
Writing coherently about this book is a little hard, as I’m so enamoured. I hope a reread will sort my head further and get my out of the general feeling of awesome and into the reasons why it is so great.
I’m seriously looking forward to working more with this book. Just… gaah. I want to watch all the adaptations and just get immersed into it.
You can also read about me drooling over the 2004 film adaptation here.
First published: 1847-1848
Pages: 719 (Arcturus 2010 edition)
Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle
From a Turkish writer who has been compared with Borges, Nabokov, and DeLillo comes a dazzling novel that is at once a captivating work of historical fiction and a sinuous treatise on the enigma of identity and the relations between East and West.
In the 17th century, a young Italian scholar sailing from Venice to Naples is taken prisoner and delivered to Constantinople. There he falls into the custody of a scholar known as Hoja–“master”–a man who is his exact double. In the years that follow, the slave instructs his master in Western science and technology, from medicine to pyrotechnics. But Hoja wants to know more: why he and his captive are the persons they are and whether, given knowledge of each other’s most intimate secrets, they could actually exchange identities.
Set in a world of magnificent scholarship and terrifying savagery, The White Castle is a colorful and intricately patterned triumph of the imagination.
Another required read for text analysis. Another read-it-quick-as-you-can novel.
I didn’t really care for this one. I’m really bad with modern and post-modern literature. It’s not all bad, of course not, I’ve read good ones, but it seems to me like everything that becomes popular in literary fiction feels somehow… pretentious.
It’s probably just me though. I like straightforward stories, not clever angles from which to look at life.
But I digress. The White Castle addresses identity – always an interesting topic – and doppelgangers. For the most part I couldn’t really identify with the characters, but later on I sort of recognised myself in Hoca (if you’ve read it, let me assure you, I’m not as crazy but understand where the crazy comes from) and from then on found more interest in reading. The end plays with you, and you get to play detective for a couple of pages, but unfortunately the very ending somewhat disappointed me.
Published: 1985 (original title Beyaz Kale)
Translation: Kalevi Nyytäjä (from the English translation by Victoria Holbrook 1990)
Pages: 216 (Loisto 2006 paperback)
Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers
This 1857 sequel to The Warden wryly chronicles the struggle for control of the English diocese of Barchester. The evangelical but not particularly competent new bishop is Dr. Proudie, who with his awful wife and oily curate, Slope, maneuver for power. The Warden and Barchester Towers are part of Trollope’s Barsetshire series, in which some of the same characters recur.
Well written and amusing in its sarcasm, but really, the interior design of a house or who gets to be dean are not subjects I thrill in. The prose is, however, very neat and pleasant to read, and by no means very heavy. There is a romance plot as well as the drama of the religious circles of Barchester, and they blend very nicely together. Second in the series of books situated in the town of Barchester, it suffers very little from the reader not being acquainted with the first part, The Warden. I haven’t read it, and probably won’t, but sort of enjoyed Barchester Towers nonetheless.
First published: 1857
Pages: 586 (Penguin English Library 2012 edition)
Herta Müller: The Passport
The Passport is a beautiful, haunting novel whose subject is a German village in Romania caught between the stifling hopelessness of Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the glittering temptations of the West. Stories from the past are woven together with the problems Windisch, the village miller, faces after he applies for permission to migrate to West Germany. Herta Müller (Herta Mueller) describes with poetic attention the dreams and superstitions, conflicts and oppression of a forgotten region, the Banat, in the Danube Plain. In sparse, poetic language, Muller captures the forlorn plight of a trapped people.
Consisting of titled fragments, this work of Müller’s was a positive experience, once I realised it takes place in Romania, rather than Germany. Made more sense after that. It’s got lots of rather nice images and interesting metaphors, and most people in class said they needed or wanted to take time reading it, to better concentrate on the images. Some even considered it a hard read. Now, I may be just stupid or something, but I didn’t think it was all that hard. It took me a couple of hours to get through the about 100 pages, and I believe I got it. (But then again, I believe most of the participants in the class major in Comparative Literature and thus perhaps have a more analytical approach to reading than I do. Who knows.)
It’s very interesting, and I do recommend it. My second favourite of the six I’ve read for this course. (First being Time’s Arrow.) I find the English title rather unfortunate though – the Finnish translation used the original, and while the English one draws attention to the object of desire of the people in the book, the original is more attractive. Without any real knowledge on German, I believe it translates roughly to, “Man is a big pheasant on earth.”
Published: 1986 (originally Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt)
Translation: Raija Jänicke 1990
Pages: 110 (Tammi 1990 edition)
Hannu Rajaniemi: The Fractal Prince
‘On the day the Hunter comes for me, I am killing ghost cats from the Schrödinger Box.’
On the edges of physical space a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrödinger box.
He is doing the job for his patron, and owner of the ship, Mieli. In the box is his freedom. Or not.
The box is protected by codes that twist logic and sanity. And the ship is under attack.
The thief is nearly dead, the ship is being eaten alive.
Jean de Flambeur is running out of time. All of him.
And on earth, two sisters in a city of fast ones, shadow players and jinni contemplate a revolution.
There are many more stories than can be told even in a thousand nights and one night, but these two stories will twist, and combine. And reality will spiral.
In Hannu Rajaniemi’s sparkling follow-up to the critically acclaimed, international sensation THE QUANTUM THIEF, he returns to his awe-inspiring vision of the universe and we find out what the future held for earth.
(Back cover of the Gollancz trade paperback)
Okay. If you haven’t read The Quantum Thief, the first part in the trilogy, go do that now. Then you can get to The Fractal Prince. And I promise you they are both beautiful.
I didn’t have time to reread Quantum Thief, but I think this second book starts from about where the first one ended. Fractal Prince then turns out to be even more confusing than Quantum Thief, but, I think, the prose is more beautiful. I can’t really grasp a clear plot, a clear goal for the characters, but that doesn’t really matter. Jean, Mieli, and the new character Tawaddud are all interesting, as well as the spidership Perhonen. There’s several timelines that get confused, identities that you can’t be sure of, and some political intrigue which I liked immensely. There’s also more Finnishness in this book than the previous one, or perhaps I was just more attuned to it.
Sometimes I didn’t even understand a sentence, but loved it to bits. That, I think, tells a lot. Amazing prose. So engaging and magical. You don’t need to be a physics whiz to enjoy it. I hated maths, chemistry and physics in high school and do not read much science fiction, but this series has my heart.
Non-Finns who have read Rajaniemi – how do the names and words especially Mieli uses look to you? Mieli, Sydän, Perhonen, Kuutar, Ilmatar, koto, väki… I can’t really get enough distance to the words to not see what they mean and would love to hear what they sound like.
Published: Gollancz 2012
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.
It was nine years ago when I last read this book. I was thirteen. This was probably the first book ever that I like a lot but haven’t read every year, so the difference between my opinion then and opinion now was actually interesting to compare. It was also my first time reading it in English, so another first! Yay! This reread, by the way, was obviously because of the upcoming movie, which I can’t wait for…
It was more or less as I remember it. Bilbo is a darling, Gandalf is somewhat annoying, the dwarfs are fun. What felt really different though was the pacing. I had real trouble getting through the Battle of Five Armies before, and now I marvelled at how compactly the whole battle was described. I was so looking forward to it, and then it was only a few pages long. Slight disappointment there. In general the book felt much shorter.
What I really admire is Tolkien’s way of writing for children. It’s only very slightly less complicated than the way he writes for “adults”, but The Hobbit is also very obviously a story intended for children. But Tolkien is not patronising or condescending, and that is a true talent.
Published: George Allen & Unwin 1937
Pages: 276 (Harper Collins 75th anniversary edition)
Nick Foulkes: Dancing Into Battle – A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo
The summer of 1815 saw the final and desperate efforts of the European powers to usurp Napoleon’s reign over France.
The pivotal moment was unfolding in an age where war was a social occasion; the military urgency was matched only by the soldiers’ and their wives’ frantic efforts to keep apace of the lavish balls which were being thrown. The intention to deny war with frivolity persevered until 15 June, when the tension broke, and troops exchanged dance partners for weapons and prepared for battle.
Nick Foulkes captures the sense of what it was like to be at the very hub of events when the fate of Europe seemed to hang in the balance.
(Back cover of the Phoenix 2006 paperback)
I really enjoyed this book. It might be the fact that I’m getting really excited about my final paper topic, but it might also be the fact that the Battle of Waterloo and the days leading up to it were very confusing and interesting. The Britons in Brussels didn’t really grasp what was going on, did they?
Foulkes has drawn on a multitude of sources. The most interesting of those are diaries and letters, of such personages as Fanny Burney, Harry Smith, Thomas Picton, Thomas Creevey and Rees Howell Gronow. The book builds the picture of what went on during the Hundred Days that started when Napoleon escaped from Elba and guides the reader through the move of the British upper classes to Brussels and from thence to the battlefield. The Duke of Wellington is, naturally, a very prominent character in the book, but also the families of Capel and Richmond are much represented.
At first it may take a while to grasp the names and social positions of the people through whose reminiscences the world of society and war is shown, but towards the end this gets easier. I could recommend keeping a list, though, and I fully intend to do so on the second reading.
This is a very informative book, and perfectly suited for those who find plain war description heavy reading. The women of the time are amply represented, which is very delightful – my own favourite being Brigade-Major Harry Smith’s spirited Spanish wife, Juana, whose description of the panic on the road from Brussels to Antwerp is lively and a pleasurable read.
Published: Phoenix 2006
Pages: 230 (plus notes, bibliography, acknowledgements, and index)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Conceived by a shy British don on a golden afternoon to entertain ten-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have delighted generations of readers in more than eighty languages. “The clue to the enduring fascination and greatness of the Alice books,” writes A. S. Byatt in her Introduction, “lies in language. . . . It is play, and word-play, and its endless intriguing puzzles continue to reveal themselves long after we have ceased to be children.”
First book to be read for the course titled “Classics of Fantasy Literature” (although I’m very tempted to call it “Classics of Children’s Literature”), Alice is something I’ve never gotten around to reading before. And I found it delightful. Carroll’s prose is flowing and pleasant to read, and doesn’t patronise. It’s absurd, but at the same time full of meaning and things you never thought of. I only wish I had been read this as a child! I also enjoyed how seamlessly the events of the book flow into one another, and you suddenly find yourself quite somewhere else than you were a couple of sentences ago.
It’s also a very quick read, which at this point in time is a definite plus in my books!
I hope I have time to read Through the Looking-Glass as well before I return this book to its rightful owner. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy that one even more.
First published: 1865
Pages: 115 (Wordsworth Classics 2001 edition: this edition actually has both of the Alice stories, as well as a 30-page introduction – I only read Wonderland)
So there you go again. You’ve already seen the books I bought this month, as they are all in the Edinburgh post. That leaves me one more thing to add to this post before leaving to Night Visions festival to see a werewolf movie!
- William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair (yup, rereading it already. Hunting down anything to do with the army.)
- Anne Rice: The Wolf Gift (enjoying it so much!)
Happy Halloween, people!