Tag Archives: Evelyn Waugh Month

13 Best Books of 2013

You know it’s that time of year when all of the ‘Best of’ lists start appearing… I love browsing the lists, getting ideas on what to read next, ideas for gifts and just generally having a nosy to see if some of my favourite books of the year feature. I thought it would be lovely to do my own as I haven’t done one before – since I’ve read 53 books so far this year, a bit of a record for me, I’m having trouble narrowing down my list of favourites… So, with this in mind, I’ve gone for my 13 favourite books read in 2013 (in no particular order). I’m hopeful that next year I read as many wonderful books!

Top 13 of 2013

Click on the links to see my original review

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

How could this not make my list? I absolutely loved it, and found it equally gripping and infuriating with all of its twists and turns! I read along with my book group, and have since lent my copy to many people, all of whom have really enjoyed it. It’s an intelligent thriller – hopefully I’ll find something as good to kick off next year with as big a bang as this felt like in 2013.

LIfe After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved this book as well, the way Atkinson had structured her novel, giving main character Ursula repeated attempts at life, events repeating and changing thanks to the tiniest details and circumstances. I love the way it highlights how changeable life can be, and how each small moment can have a great effect on later events. It’s on a lot of the ‘Best of’ lists I’ve seen so far and I certainly think it deserves its place.

Burial_Rites_HBD_FCBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

This book was part of a very good run of audiobooks I listened to in the autumn, a début novel set in Iceland in the 1800s. It describes the last few days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I thought it was really evocative, and I loved listening to it as I think the narrator did a wonderful job capturing the tone of each of the characters and the pronunciation of all of the Icelandic names and places. I look forward to reading her next book!

The-Presidents-HatThe President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Paperback)

This was such a charming book, all about former French president Mitterand’s hat, and how it was found by a stranger and started to have a magical positive influence on his life. The hat flits on to other holders and casts its same spell on each of them – it’s such a lovely evocative story of France in the ’80s – I’ve passed this on to several family members and each one of them has been as charmed as I was!

9781447212201Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman (Paperback)

I adored this book, it was one of our book club choices and I think everyone really enjoyed it. It was part family saga, part murder mystery and I thought it’s sense of time and place was so evocative – I really felt as if I was back in the ’50s, sipping cocktails on a moon-drenched lawn. Another great Book Club read from 2013 – I’m not sure what 2014 has in store for the Book Club next year yet but I’m hoping there’ll be some more gems.

humansThe Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans tells the story of an alien sent to earth to assassinate a mathematics professor who has just discovered the secret of prime numbers, by an alien species who don’t think humans are quite ready to handle that information. What follows is a series of hilarious events as the alien tries to understand human culture; a love letter to what it means to be human and observations on just how ridiculous we really are. It’s warm and funny and intelligent and I would recommend it to all fellow humans.

vile bodiesVile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

I read this as part of my Evelyn Waugh Month, as a way to get to know the work of a particular author I hadn’t read much by before. This book was everything I wanted it to be and more – it’s a comical, light-hearted satire of the young and beautiful of London in the ’30s. I think it’s my favourite of Waugh’s books and it had me giggling away to myself. I’m thinking of doing the same again for next year with a different author – I haven’t decided who that will be yet so please watch this space!

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Yes, it took me years to get round to reading this, and no, it did not disappoint. Most people know the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy but Jane Austen’s prose is the best way to discover it. It’s a witty classic, and one that deserves its place on best read lists. A book I imagine I will read again and again throughout my life and never tire of.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is all about Death, and his grip on people as the events of World War II unfolds. It’s such an original way to tell the story and I became quite attached to the characters, even though I knew all could not end well. This book had me wailing, one of just a handful of books to affect me so. The film adaptation is coming out at the end of January next year so I will be looking forward to seeing it!

pereiramaintainsPereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

Set in Lisbon in the late ’30s, this novella demonstrates how even the most unassuming of people can have the courage to disagree with what is going on around them. There is an undercurrent of menace in the novel, as the effects of the Spanish Civil War and the onslaught of World War II make their presence known, that Tabucchi builds and builds into a tense and devastating moment. One of those books that stays with you long after reading.

panopticonThe Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

I have praised this book to practically everyone who has asked what my favourite book of the year was. It’s a sharp, intelligent and warm account of young offender and foster child Anais, who is moved into a home for troubled teens, known as The Panopticon. The language in this book rings out and Anais is such a compelling character, who has experienced far too much already in her 15 years, leaving her jaded and cynical. I can’t wait to see what Fagan writes next.

just kidsJust Kids by Patti Smith

This was one of the first audiobooks I listened to this year and it was the perfect introduction. An autobiography of Patti Smith’s younger years in New York with lover and struggling photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, this was narrated by Smith herself and it was so moving. You could hear the emotion in her voice as she read certain passages – if you are planning to read this at some point, I would highly recommend the audiobook.

crimson petalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I remember watching the BBC adaptation of this book a couple of years ago and being blown away by a new take on Victorian fiction, with its gritty detail. The book is even better, leading you through the London streets as you follow Sugar from brothel to ale house to higher places. You can practically smell what is being described. Sugar is an unforgettable character and I loved diving into her world. I have just finished reading Michel Faber’s début novel Under the Skin which was also brilliant – hopefully a review of that to follow soon.

For a full list of all of the books I’ve read this year, have a peek at my Books 2013 page.

We Love This Book have been asking book bloggers for their pick of 2013 books – read all of their recommendations here! What are your favourite books read in 2013? Anything you’re looking forward to in 2014? I’ve still to read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Aside from that, I will be sweeping my bookshelves and reading what I already own as well as getting stuck into my Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, to expand my horizons a little and read one non-fiction book a month. Does anyone else have big plans for their reading next year?

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Evelyn Waugh Month Round-Up

Evelyn Waugh

So I have finally come to the end of my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and have enjoyed the books and the challenge.

I had plans to read more but I ended up reading four of his books, reviews of which can be found by clicking on the titles:

Scoop
Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
The Loved One

Each of these books was very different to the next, although they did have a similar stye to them. Ever-present is Evelyn Waugh’s satirical view of the rich and fashionable mainly in the period between the two World Wars. I thought he was so adept at capturing that lost generation, something that was summed up so succinctly in The Loved One that the characters “came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death”. I think Vile Bodies was my favourite of the four as it was such a hoot to read and was a bit of escapism, telling you about the crazy lives of the Bright Young Things.

I noticed that The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy Mitford. I don’t know why I never put these two writers together before – I’d only read Brideshead Revisited by Waugh and The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Mitford so perhaps I wasn’t in the most educated position. Their writing styles do have similarities, a certain eccentric wit that runs through the prose, dropping little in-jokes that are later alluded to and you feel like part of the in-crowd. If you are a fan of Waugh I’d suggest that Nancy Mitford might be a good author for you to read next.

I actually did a class in my final year of university called Literary Snobbery which was how I discovered Mitford. It was a brilliant course which I thoroughly enjoyed and one which exposed me to a lot of writers I hadn’t come across before. What I’m wondering is, where was Waugh on the course list? I think he would have fit in rather well!

I was joined in Evelyn Waugh Month by Heavenali, who read and reviewed Vile Bodies to coincide with my month of reading Waugh and I also stumbled across a review of another of Waugh’s books Decline and Fall over on Book Snob which was rather timely and has of course added another book to my list of books to read.

I really enjoyed doing this and hope to do the same in future with a different author – it’s such a great way to get to know an author, to read books by them in close succession. I have in my head W. Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene in mind but would love to hear any suggestions. Is there any particular author you would like to have a go at reading for a month? Perhaps someone whom you have always meant to read but have just never gotten round to it?

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Book Review: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

The Loved One

The last of my picks for Evelyn Waugh Month was The Loved One, a novella set in L.A. in the early forties, which follows the fate of a young Englishman Dennis Barlow and his attempts to acclimatise to America and to court a young corpse beautician Aimée, whom he meets whilst arranging a funeral for his friend. Dennis himself works in a mortuary, although nothing quite so grand as Whispering Glades where Aimée works, a land of archways and gardens and every kind of possibility to make sure that the ‘loved one’ is ushered from this world in style. Dennis deals with funerals for pets, and his occupation is something of a worry to the local ex-pats who commune at the cricket club to discuss English interests and the sorts of jobs suitably respectable for an English gentleman in America.

I read this novella in one sitting on a Saturday morning whilst eating a rather yummy plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami on toast. I may have been a little distracted by that! Sometimes when I read a book very quickly I feel like I barely take it in, I get a sense of it but I really just don’t get to know the characters or care about them too much. This is what happened with The Loved One – I read it and enjoyed it and found it to be quite different to other books by Waugh that I’ve read this month – the voice is there but the subject matter is different. The humour is very dark (not surprising when a lot of it takes place in funeral homes) and the characters are all a bit despicable in their own way. This is the first of Waugh’s books that I have read which is wholly set abroad and this is indeed one of the central issues explored, that of the difference between the Brits and the Americans, both equally exposed to Waugh’s satirical observations and descriptions. Its subtitle is in fact An Anglo-American Tragedy so that is not that big of an observation on my part!

The descriptions of Americans focus on their consumerism, shown by the gaudy commercialism of funerals, the ads for peaches and the slogans used by Dennis and Aimée in their funereal workplaces. Added to this was something that Waugh just cannot resist – journalists and how they influence people’s lives. Aimée writes to an agony uncle in a local newspaper when she is trying to make up her mind about her possible suitors – Mr Joyboy (the skilled mortician of Whispering Glades). Even when she does not wish her letters to be printed in the problem page, she still appeals to them for answers to her personal predicament, taking their advice as gospel and following it, which has tragic consequences. When her heart is broken this is not seen as particularly noteworthy as “it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture”, another commodity to be traded and disregarded.

What also stood out for me was this sense of the effect the Wars had on the characters, something that I had also felt when reading A Handful of Dust. Dennis seems quite apathetic to everything that goes on around him, even the cremations that he performs on a daily basis, highlighted perfectly by this quote after finding his friend dead:

“Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment. He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm’s length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death. Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters. The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.”

This proximity to the horrors of the Wars results in a numbness, and an inability to really feel much sympathy for anyone or anything, in stark contrast to the portrayal to his customers that he cares about their loss. This was a funny little book, and if you like your humour dark and beyond the pale then this may be just the ticket for you, it was something a bit more light-hearted to end my month on!

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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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Evelyn Waugh Month: The Loved One

Apologies on the delay on posting this week – it has been rather hectic with a lot going on and I feel like my reading and blogging mojo took a leave of absence. I’m finishing up my review of A Handful of Dust which I’ll post soon and I have one more little book to squeeze in on Evelyn Waugh Month – although I know it’s May already!

The final book I’ll be reading by Evelyn Waugh for my month of reading, is The Loved One. It’s quite a short one at 128 pages so I don’t think it will take me as long as A Handful of Dust. I also have a sneaking suspicion it will not be quite as serious!

The Loved One

The blurb:

“Following the death of a friend, poet and pets’ mortician Dennis Barlow finds himself entering into the artificial Hollywood paradise of the Whispering Glades Memorial Park. Within its golden gates, death, American-style, is wrapped up and sold like a package holiday. There, Dennis enters the fragile and bizarre world of Aimée, the naïve Californian corpse beautician, and Mr Joyboy, the master of the embalmer’s art …

A dark and savage satire on the Anglo-American cultural divide, The Loved One depicts a world where love, reputation and death cost a very great deal.”

I think it will be quite a surreal little book, and somewhere closer to Scoop in its absurdity than the other books I’ve read this month. Looking forward to it! After this book, I’ll post my review and do a little round-up on my thoughts on Evelyn Waugh Month overall.

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Book Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

vile bodies

Vile Bodies was the second read for my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and again it was an absoute hoot. I know I have mentioned this several times but it was the film by Stephen Fry that made me want to read the books (and others by Waugh). Vile Bodies was originally named Bright Young Things but that phrase became much too passé and so it was renamed, although this was used by Fry in his film adaptation. It is slightly catchier after all:

 

“Ooooh what’s that shiny thing, it’s hurting my eyes.”
“Sorry, that’d be me, I’m a bright young thing. Avert your eyes lest they be burned from their sockets.”

Set in the 1920s, the book follows the progress of young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes who has the bad luck of having the manuscript of his first novel confiscated by customs on his return to Britain from France. With this disappears any hope of an advance for writing the book without which he will not be able to marry his sweetheart, Nancy Blount, as she simply could not marry a man who is poor. What follows is a series of parties and events – Adam is on the fringes of a group of young people trying to find their place in a post-Great War world, a group named by the papers as ‘Bright Young Things’. They live in a whirlwind of parties, sashaying to and fro following whatever took their fancy and not taking much heed at all of what was going on around them.

Just like in Scoop, journalists are never far from the action. It shows the beginning of the tabloids, snapping pictures at parties and writing gossip articles. There are a few very funny scenes in which Adam is writing a gossip artice and making up celebrities and inventing fashions and watching as the world talks about them as if they were real. Adam does tire of the parties, as does Nina who describes them as ‘a bore’, listing all of the various events:

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths,…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

I loved the character of Agatha Runcible as she really does sum up what the Bright Young Things were all about, and she definitely gets some of the best scenes in the book. She is always at the centre of the fun and her speech reflects her different view of the world – when she is stripped at customs it is “too shaming”, drinks are “better-making” and she merrily goes along with everything in the pursuit of fun. There is a vulnerable side to her, dealt with rather comically, that reveals how much Waugh is ridiculing the way of life of some young people at this time. Even when spending some time in hospital, Agatha is surrounded by friends from her ‘set’ who laugh, listen to music and drink cocktails with the nurses. She sums up the experience of living in the public eye:

“D’you know, all that time I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate-crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting to us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving – and then I used to crash and wake up.”

The relationship between Adam and Nina is touching – and they clearly do care for each other quite a bit despite the game they try to play of pretending otherwise when their financial situation isn’t working out. There are many telephone conversations written down between them and I wonder if this is some commentary by Waugh on documenting something that would have otherwise been lost. Nina and Adam are so very modern and although they do send the occasional letter and telegram, they communicate mostly by telephone.

The narrative is peppered with comical dialogue, ridiculous names, farcical misunderstandings and misadventures. Everything is so over-the-top and melodramatic, and the dialogue in this book is what really stood out for me. There are moments which make it stand out from me – I loved the description of how ‘The topic of the Younger Generation spread through the company like a yawn’ – how it is something involuntary and that they feel compelled to discuss it, although much like the young ones themselves, there is an apathy about everything that they don’t have the energy to overcome.

The film poster for Bright Young Things

The film poster for Bright Young Things

Finally, a note on reading this after having watched the film Bright Young Things as usually I read the book beforehand. This was a strange experience as the film was very true to the book, dialogue and all so I felt like I knew exactly what was happening and already had a clear vision of the characters in my head. That said, I really did enjoy reading the book and the extra detail it provided – I think the book and film are quite complementary!

Have you read Vile Bodies, or even watched the film Bright Young Things? How would you compare them?

Heavenali has also written a review of Vile Bodies this month which you can read here.

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Evelyn Waugh Month: A Handful of Dust

a handful of dust

I have been a little slow on my reading this month – I can’t believe it’s almost May already! I’ll finish off Vile Bodies today ( I would have finished it last night if I hadn’t left it in my desk at work!) and post my review this evening. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next book I’ll be reading by Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust:

“After seven years of marriage the beautiful Lady Brenda Last is bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. Brilliantly combining tragedy, comedy and savage irony, A Handful of Dust captures the irresponsible mood of the ‘crazy and sterile generation’ between the wars. The breakdown of the Last marriage, is a painful, comic re-working of Waugh’s own divorce and a symbol of the disintegration of society.”

I think this sounds just wonderful and highlights what I’m really enjoying about reading lots of Waugh books together – they all complement each other so well and although the stories are different of course, there are common themes running throughout. Really looking forward to starting this one – tonight if I’m lucky!

Read more about what I’m reading for Evelyn Waugh Month.

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