The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

the_sun_also_risesI went into this book torn between scepticism and hoping to fall in love. I knew all about Hemingway, from popular culture, lists of the greatest writers and as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War. I had also read A Moveable Feast  back when I was a student and it was just the kind of sensory, cafe and liquor heavy prose I enjoyed then. The Sun Also Rises is the first of Hemingway’s novels I have sat down to read and while I didn’t have to force my way through it like another certain Jazz Age work, I wasn’t blown away either.

The book centres around a group of American expatriates after WW1, as they roam from the bars in Paris to the bullfighting rings of Spain, while dealing with their romantic entanglements with each other and disillusionment after the War. The star is Lady Brett Ashley and orbiting around her is the protagonist Jake Barnes. I had heard of these two before I even picked up the book as they are quite iconic.

Hemingway’s writing style is incredibly sparse and yet highly atmospheric. It is also heavy on the dialogue and often quite mundane dialogue at that. It should have been rambling and pointless and yet there is weight behind it. It’s like it all fits into the same dream. The mundane becomes relevant. I’ve seen other contemporary writers do this and found it tedious and pretentious and yet here it works.

“The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright and inclined to blur at the edges.”

Halfway through the book however the novelty had worn off for me. I enjoyed the writing but the characters weren’t interesting enough to me to keep me glued to a book without much of a plot. I didn’t really know much more about Brett or Jake at the end of the book then I did at the beginning despite having watched them drink their way across Europe. I also wasn’t impressed by the casual anti-Semitism thrown around by various characters and the greatest impression of my first reading of a Hemingway novel from this is; disappointment.

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

bluecastleWhen I’m sick or sad or it’s raining outside this is my number one book to reach for. What Anne of Green Gables did for me as a child The Blue Castle does for me as an adult. This story is as timeless and warming as hot soup and a warm blanket.

Valancy Stirling lives a cramped dreary life, cowed by her overbearing and critical family. Dismissed as an old maid at 29 and meekly doing everything her family asks of her, her only escapes are her “dream sprees” in her imaginary Blue Castle every night and the nature books of John Foster. A shocking diagnosis from a doctor frees her from her miserable existence and causes her to say and do what she thinks for the first time in her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Montgomery is a genius at capturing the intricacies of human interaction. I grew up reading her Anne series so I always appreciated this but seeing her skill in a novel directed towards adults illustrates her skills in an entirely new light. Her ability to inject warmth and humour into the tragic and mundane makes me return to her again and again.

I love Valancy and her efforts to find “her own little dust pile.” Despite the flowery romantic cover this is actually predominantly a novel about gaining psychological and financial independence. There is a romance with a character brilliant enough to rival Gilbert Blythe and I loved all the other characters too from the colourful “Roaring Abel” to the petty clan of Stirlings.

I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s severely underrated. As I grow older I’ve returned to it more than any of Montgomery’s other books and it also remains close by for a re-read.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

s-l300This is a perfect book for the hot weather, Bonjour Tristesse especially takes place on the Riviera on a summer holiday and the betrayals, affairs and rising tension take place in the summering heat.

This edition consists of two stories; Bonjour Tristesse is the story of the young girl Cecile on holiday with her father and his various girlfriends and A Certain Smile, a novella, the tale of a young woman who, bored by her lover, starts an affair with a married man.

Part of the reason this work became an overnight bestseller in the 50s is because of the young age Sagan was when she wrote it. She was only eighteen when it was published and her coming of age story is coloured with the influence of Sartre and Camus. It shows a level of sophistication that is incredible. The themes of existentialism are interwoven into the threads of this story, the way Cecile lies around in the sand, smokes, and manipulates with an air of nonchalance and bemoans her lack of authenticity.

Sagan’s writing style (translated by Heather Lloyd) is cool and elegant:

 “A Strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.” 

Did that sounds pretentious? It is pretentious. This is very much a novel written by a teenager and while I admired her stylish and atmospheric way of illustrating a story I also couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Its major shortcoming is that it tries and fails to hit the true emotional mark and so becomes very much style over substance.

 

Frost in May by Antonia White

1280771I’ve needed all the escapism I can get in this last week for obvious reasons. If anyone else is in the same boat this is a good place to start.

This loosely autobiographical story is about a young girl, named Nanda Grey, who is sent to the Convent of the Five Wounds after her father converts to Catholicism. In the introduction Elizabeth Bowers says “There is the school story proper, written school-age children; and the school novel written for the grown-up,” and this is definitely the latter. The language is clean and stark, simple enough for a child to understand, but the themes White has woven through the book are complex and dark.

Nanda Grey is at a disadvantage from the start as her peers are from wealthy catholic families and she is from a middle class household in Earl’s Court. The fact she has converted from Protestantism is also damning. She has the passionate devotion of a true believer and heaps coals upon her own head for any fault she or the nuns perceive in her.

“On Tuesday, she stuffed her fingers in her ears when the organ played at benediction. On Wednesday, she refused to smell flowers and made herself sniff and particularly nauseating mixture of ink and liquorice powder. On Thursday, she put salt instead of sugar on her rhubarb to mortify her sense of taste.”

This book is so powerful in its simplicity. From the moment Nanda steps into the convent her every move and thought is regulated, even her sleeping position is corrected on her first night. Letters home are read and checked for improper thoughts, story books are strictly rationed, girls are forbidden to walk together alone because “When two are together, the devil loves to make a third,” and this is where Nanda’s major flaw (in the eyes of the nuns) lies. She has the tendency to form passionate relationships with other girls. The moment she falls for her schoolmate Leonie, a wonderfully androgynous and romantic character, White’s vivid description of it is like a cold flame leaping from the page.

The thrill of disobedience, from feeling any kind of emotions or passion towards another living being, is the major rebellion of Nanda Grey and in the domineering environment of the convent it must be crushed at all costs. It’s not enough for her to behave perfectly, devote every hour and believe it with all her heart. They want to break her will, this is even said to her face, and the book illustrates the slow death of a free and imaginative mind.

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

the_seven_dials_mystery_first_edition_cover_1929 (1)I don’t think I’ll ever find a crime author I love as much as Agatha Christie. I had so much fun reading this book. Not only was the mystery cleverly plotted out in Christie’s usual flair but there was a great deal of humour and unexpected twists.

The book begins at a country house party where one of the guests, Gerry Wade, known for oversleeping and missing breakfast, unexpectedly dies in his room. The other guests had arranged a practical joke to wake him up by placing eight alarm clocks in his room.  When he is found dead seven clocks are found on the mantelpiece and the strange clue ends up leading back to a secret society in London. His friend Ronny Devereux has only just started to investigate when he is shot and found dying by the heroine Bundle- real name Lady Eileen Brent. She joins forces with Gerry’s friend Jimmy Thesiger, and two others mixed up in the house party but all of them have their own agendas and no one is telling the absolute truth.

The book was extremely funny as all Agatha books are but there was also the unintentionally hilarious. Bundle spends a lot of time while stuck in a wardrobe spying on a dangerous international secret society obsessing over the one woman in the group and how beautiful her back is. I was beginning to hope the book would spiral in an unexpected direction especially as the female gaze comes out again later at another woman but alas it was not to be.

What I loved most about Bundle is that despite being in the dark without the police’s resources she is very determined to sleuth in dangerous situations more than her male companions and doesn’t really pay attention to anything they tell her to do.

Bundle Brent was a resourceful girl- she was also a girl of imagination. She had foreseen that Bill, if not Jimmy, would make objections to her participation in the possible dangers of the night. It was not Bundle’s idea to waste time in argument. She had made her own plans and made her own arrangements.

While the boys set to watch the house she climbs outside in the middle of the night to make her own investigation, noting that they don’t think far enough outside the box.

I didn’t guess who the murderer was at all and ended up suspecting practically everyone at some point as the author intended. The espionage element of the plot was never taken very seriously, actually a lot of the story wasn’t taken very seriously and that’s what made the book so good. Christie makes a lot of satirical asides at the upper class and noveau rich and Bundle’s interactions with her father were brilliant.

My only criticism of the plot was that the reveal of the murderer and reasons behind it were rushed in at the end. I had to read it over twice and it ended a little too abruptly for me. Still I highly recommend this book and will definitely be reading The Secret of Chimneys. I didn’t realise until half way through that this was a loose sequel of a previous book but it doesn’t really matter and can be enjoyed as a stand alone novel.

This is one of the crime books I got for Christmas. I love the vintage covers that Harper Collins have brought back and they’ve even included the original blurbs which sound very strange by today’s standards/