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Book Review: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

a handful of dust

Continuing on with my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh, last week I was reading A Handful of Dust. I seem to remember that it was the title of this book which appealed to me – which in fact was taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. This feels like a much more serious book, and I think I was ready for that after the heady abandon of the characters in Vile Bodies. That’s not to say they aren’t reckless in their own way, but they are slightly older, with more commitments in the way of family homes to run and children to care for. This makes their actions all the more shocking I think – there’s nothing particularly alarming about young singletons going out on the ran dan, but when it is done with a lack of regard to a family they have built up and are required to care for that is another matter altogether.

The story revolves around husband and wife, Tony and Brenda Last, who live out in the country in the Gothic manor that Tony has inherited. They spend their mornings lolling about, leaving their young son John in the care of a somewhat uncouth stable-hand, then reprimand him for using naughty words and saying rough things about those he meets. There is a listlessness to the Lasts – they don’t seem to do very much and it is not much of a surprise to me that Brenda becomes bored. She embarks on an affair with the dull John Beaver, who is never quite at ease in the Bloomsbury set, always waiting on last-minute invitations to dinners and events as he is known for being a single man and a readily available space-filler if someone cancels at short notice.

There were elements of this book which reminded me a little of Anna Karenina – a bored woman seduced by a young man and giving up a lot to be with him. Brenda is bored with her life, and escapes to London, spending more and more time away from home ‘studying’ and fobbing Tony off with excuses as to why she cannot come home. She completely abandons her child and it is clear that she doesn’t care much for him. It’s really hard to have much sympathy for any of the characters in this novel as they are all very flawed but they are so vague that they don’t even notice their own failings. Writing this review I almost feel that this novel left a strange feeling of malaise hanging over me, drawn in as I was by their stories.

That’s what Waugh does so well, capturing this generation between the wars that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The characters are from a slightly older generation than in Vile Bodies but the sentiments are the same; a listlessness and feeling of unreality.

After the frivolities of the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies, and the farcical comedy of errors that is Scoop, this came as something of a shock. It’s serious, but still retains a lot of elements which can be held up to ridicule. I almost would have liked for this book to be more realistic, more serious and grown-up, much as I’d like its characters to take a bit more responsibility. It’s almost as if nothing can be taken seriously again after the horror of the First World War. The beauty of what Waugh does in this book is to create these characters that are so affected by the War but they don’t even realise how affected they are.

I found the ending a bit odd and unbelievable. Like most people I’m sure, I thought that Tony was a bit wet and all too easily fooled by Brenda’s indiscretions. The moment that he finally does stand up to her feels like a big moment for the reader but leads on to him going on a strange journey into the heart of South America. I’d like to discuss this more but don’t want to give too much away! There is a particular part which Waugh had originally written as a short story called ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – it’s quite creepy but I think led Waugh down a well-trodden road of being slightly absurd. I really enjoyed this episode and found it absorbing and quite unsettling, but I’m not sure about how well it fit in to the story.

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World Book Night 2013: April 23rd

2013_WBN_Logo

It’s World Book Night tonight so I’ve written a little post on being a giver for the website of publisher Canongate Books, where I am lucky enough to work. I’ll be giving away the wonderful memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, an author who I greatly admire and one who has had an incredibly interesting life. I’m feeling nervously excited about being a giver, and my plan at the moment is to hand copies of my book out to people on the streets of Leith as that’s where I picked up my books. I’m hoping that this weather continues into the evening – rain showers have been making me nervous that I’ll be trying to hand out soggy books later on! Fingers crossed, and I’ll let you all know how it goes.

The lovely editions of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for World Book Night 2013

The lovely editions of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for World Book Night 2013

I think the project is such a wonderful idea, a way of encouraging those who don’t read regularly to read something different and hopefully inspire them to discover different books. I love the special World Book Night editions that have been created as not only do they include the book in full, but also excerpts from other books by the writer, a poem on the back inside cover, and an excerpt from a book recommendation from the author themselves.

Jeanette Winterson’s choice is May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. It’s on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and is a book I would love to read – duly added to my Wish List!

If you want to find out more, you can read my blog post here.

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Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet LetterI picked this book up as part of Penguin’s half price sale last December. To be honest, I knew very little about it other than what I’d learnt from watching the teenage film Easy A, that an adulterous woman living in a Puritan community is forced to wear a large, scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes so that everyone can identify her as a sinner. I was intrigued by the story and how this woman would deal with her situation and whether or not the townspeople would forgive her, so I decided to give it a go.

The book begins with an introduction entitled ‘The Custom-House’. I struggled with it a little to be honest, I found the writing style quite dense and I hadn’t quite worked out what its relevance was to the story of the scarlet letter. It feels like a tableau of its own and I felt it to be superfluous as it was only towards the end of the introduction that I actually started to get into the book. This is when the narrator comes across a manuscript written 100 years before by a customs officer about a woman called Hester Prynne and a scarlet piece of fabric in the shape of a capital letter A. Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the introduction, it does serve a purpose, showing just how far removed the narrator is from Hester’s tale, and by implication, how far again the reader is removed as Hester was alive in the seventeenth century and her story is not her own but filtered through two different male writers.

I definitely enjoyed the second half of this novel more than the first. I think it doesn’t help that the story begins with Hester emerging from the prison and being vilified by the townspeople. I think I would have liked a little more preamble about Hester’s life before her ‘sin’. I wanted to know her motives, and her attraction to the man who fathered her child, Pearl, but it does give the reader a sense of how much Hester is defined by her ignominy and the scarlet letter as she is afforded no history prior to this.

There were some interesting scenes in the book, it’s split into chapters that describe different scenes and I did enjoy the structure of the book – I think probably because they were manageable chunks as Hawthorne’s writing style can be a bit heavy at times and I found I couldn’t read it for long periods of time. There are a couple of things that I won’t say as I don’t want to give away the story (even if it was written in 1850!) but I did enjoy the brooding presence of Roger Chillingworth and his machinations, and the scene where Pearl’s father becomes giddy after planning to run away with Hester and finds himself wandering through the town with thoughts of mischief, as if some tap has been turned on and he has been hiding all of his malicious thoughts away.

I did get a little tired of the imagery and symbolism in The Scarlet Letter – Hawthorne is constantly going on about how the scarlet letter burns into Hester’s bosom, and how Pearl is the physical embodiment of the letter – the sin brought to life in a wild and disobedient child. There were moments when the writing was passionate though it can be over-descriptive at times. Despite this I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter for its story and the character and resove of Hester Prynne.

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Book Review: The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

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The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins is a book that definitely takes its reader by surprise. I didn’t know much about it I’ll admit, other than mention of it years ago in English classes in school. I can see why this would work excellently as a literature class text – so much so that I almost think the best way to discuss this book is thematically; innocence, humanity, good and evil. Whichever way you talk about it there is much to discuss.

The story of The Cone-Gatherers begins as two brothers are working on Lady Runcie’s estate during the Second World War, collecting cones to counteract seed shortages arising from the War. Calum and Neil feel unwelcome on the estate, watched over by the groundskeeper, Duror, who seems to develop an unhealthy obsession with them, seeing Calum as some malignant presence due to his disability.

The War is always lingering in the background of everyone’s thoughts – Neil feeling guilty that he is not fighting; Lady Runcie’s brother away fighting in the War; Duror resenting that he was turned down for service; and the conscientious objectors working in the town who are shunned by the locals.

I loved Roderick, the little boy on the estate. He is so innocent and often contradicts his mother when he senses that she is being unjust or inconsistent. His mother describes him as ‘too quixotic for words’ when he suggests that the Calum and Neil are more important than dogs and should be allowed to ride back to the estate in the family car. Lady Runcie Campbell has been taught throughout her life to maintain ‘the correct degree of condescension’ and I think this is why she finds Roderick’s sense of justice so unsettling as it is improper to feel pity for people that she considers to be of a lower social status than she.

Roderick also understands that Duror is unfairly prejudiced against the cone gatherers and remarks upon it but Duror belittles the child’s perceptiveness and ‘smiled at the rawness of the boy who still saw evil as dwelling only in certain men and women, and not as a presence like air, infecting everyone’. The notion of good and evil is present throughout the novel and I feel like my review of the book just can’t do all of the themes justice. The ending of the book is like a blow to the chest, the action rising into a crescendo that leaves you certain that things could never end well and leaves you wondering what this means for humanity.

I found it to be reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a comparison which a google search reveals as unsurprisingly frequent. The themes of innocence and how the innocent are often made to pay for the mistakes and ignorance of others run through both, and I would claim that one novel is just as powerful as the other. A nice pair of books to read together, I think!

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Evelyn Waugh Month

This coming April, I have decided to give myself a challenge to read three Evelyn Waugh books in a month as there were quite a few of his books I wanted to read. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and just loved it, and I have to admit that I was also inspired by Stephen Fry’s wonderful film Bright Young Things which was inspired by Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you fancy joining in at all please do let me know!

The three that I have on my shelves are:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust

Scoop

I plan to start with Scoop and will be reading this in the first week of April if anyone is up for a read-a-long. I’m also happy to take suggestions if there are any other books by Evelyn Waugh you think I should be reading.

P.S. Isn’t the incredibly writerly photo of Evelyn Waugh just exactly what you would expect of him?

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Book Review: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (A Re-Reading)

The Sea Road

A few weeks ago, we had our annual staff conference at Canongate Books and one of our assignments was to pick a ‘Gem from the Vault’ – this was loosely described as a book from Canongate’s backlist that you love and want to remind people about. I poured over my bookshelves, looking at the spines for that little red door emblem, or the older one, a big C, at the bottom of all the Canongate titles I own.

I stumbled upon The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone and decided that it would be my Gem and set about re-reading it. I first read it at university, in fact, I think it may have been one of the first novels I actually studied there. I was lucky enough to have Margaret Elphinstone as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and there was something so exciting to be reading a book written by someone I had actually met and was being taught by. So interesting to listen to what she was saying and to read her book simultaneously, looking out for all of the techniques and narrative styles that she discussed.

The Sea Road is the story of a real life woman, Gudrid Thorbjornardóttir, whose tale had been told as part of The Vinland Sagas, Icelandic sagas describing the exploration of the Americas in the 10th century by the Norse people. What Elphinstone does is give voice to Gudrid and to tell her tale in a way that draws you into her history and brings an ancient story to life.

The tale begins in Rome, where a young Icelandic monk has been asked by a cardinal to transcribe Gudrid’s tale to shed some light on her experiences with ghosts and spirituality. The tale that follows covers so much more than that, beginning with Gudrid’s childhood in Iceland where she was raised by Halldis, the local apothecary, to her travels to Greenland and Vinland, with her first husband Thorstein and then her second husband Karlsefni.

I love the narrative of this book, as Gudrid tells her story to Agnar, it feels like she is talking to you, the reader, as well. The story of her life is never straightforward and is often invaded by thoughts about the present, or even events that happened long after the ones she is speaking about. It is really interesting to see how on looking back at a life, it is difficult to think of events a linear way. Events split by many years can seem more related than those that happened on consecutive days, and it is always hard to look back at a specific objectively time without everything that has come after seeping in and declaring its presence. It’s almost as if time (to humans at least) is not linear; it is a web of moments in a life, not minutes or days.

The story is magical, and weaves in supernatural forces, as well as covering Gudrid’s conversion to Christianity. The ghosts of the past and the gods that she used to worship haunt her though, and one of the most affecting passages in the book is at the death of her first husband, Thorstein, when Gudrid battles with the ghosts of lost souls. I loved this supernatural element to the book and it gave a sense of perspective to the seclusion that the people felt in their exploration of new lands and their need for gods to guide them and bless them on the seas and the land.

Agnar talks to Gudrid but we never hear his voice except in the preface and epilogue; it is not his story that is important as we hear Gudrid’s replies to him. She is the central character, the one who needs a voice. What is interesting about her tale is that sometimes there are things that she can’t say, the italicised passages that we get in the book seem like the voice of the gods (or a god), looking down on all that is happening and giving us a seemingly objective view. Our memory of our lives is never comprehensive and sometimes we need a helping hand to fill in the gaps.

I remember when I read The Sea Road all those years ago at the beginning of uni that I was drawn into this tale. I always loved stories to do with Vikings and this one transported me to a similar place, of sea travellers and settlers, living off the land and trading with people from all over. It almost recalled the inquisitiveness of primary school days, when history feels new as you haven’t discovered it before and its foreignness is all quite exciting. I really enjoyed reading this book again and I would love to read more of Elphinstone’s books. I’ve been directed towards Voyageurs as my next port of call – duly added to the wish list!

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Reading Plans for 2013

What my reading looks like for this year so far...

What my reading looks like for this year so far…

I tried the structured approach last year, with my reading list. Although I think that was useful as it brought together some of the books I had been wanting to read for some time, I think this year I will be reading more on whim. There are always interesting books that pop up throughout the year so the list of books I want to read grows and grows. I have already finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which was just brilliant and I only first caught wind of it a couple of months ago. It was a book club pick so I’ll wait until after then to discuss it more and leave you hanging on…

I will be working my way through my bookshelves as they stand at the moment. From this, two portions of planned reading have emerged, thanks to a little pre-Christmas indulgence when Penguin were doing their 50% discount deal.

The first of these two will be a burst of classics. I really like the Penguin English Library covers and I used it as an excuse to buy some classics I hadn’t read. I’ll be starting this in mid-January, finishing (hopefully!) by the end of February. The books on the list are stellar, and I am a little ashamed to say that I have never read them:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I know, I know, I hang my head – a young woman who loves Kate Bush and hasn’t even read Wuthering Heights?! I did start it when I was younger but didn’t get very far… This will be duly rectified soon and I cannot wait – I want to see what all the fuss is about! The 28th of January sees the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice so I will be reading that after finishing off my current read, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

The next planned reading session is an Evelyn Waugh month. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and really loved it, and since seeing Stephen Fry’s film Bright Young Things I have been keen to read Vile Bodies as that’s what it is based on. Again, these were picked up for a steal from Penguin. There are three to read and I may try and make a little event out of this – I’m pencilling this in for April at the moment but this may change. The books I’ll be reading by Waugh will be:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
Scoop

I quite like the idea of small, focused challenges to get stuck into as I think they’ll also make me more focused in my blogging. Time will tell! If you fancy reading some of these books along with me then do let me know – the more the merrier.

Oh, and all the best for 2013!

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