Claudine at School

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“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” ~ Colette

This is my little Christmas present to you, dear followers of my blog. Not that there is anything remotely Christmas-sy about this book, but I do recommend it from the bottom of my faithful heart.

I came by Claudine at School quite innocently, a tattered copy of it in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin. Upon reading the back, it reminded me of the quite exquisite Bonjour Tristesse and I couldn’t resist.

As it turns out, Claudine at School is only the first of a series of four Claudine novels, and I have already gone and hunted down the others. Such is my desperation to have them all, and so I cannot be happier to review this for my Christmas post.

Claudine at School has at the center of it, Claudine of course, who is but a sixteen-year-old teenage girl in a rural school in the town of Montigny. And no teenage voice has ever been quite as ripe with sensuality, quick witted or as charming before in literature.

It is important to remember that these books were written in the early 1900’s, or perhaps even earlier by Colette under the orders of her husband, who then published them under his own name. They were translated into English, as you may imagine, at a much later date. When it had only started to become acceptable to be caught reading about women’s sexuality in a mass-printed format.

Claudine is beautiful, she is desirable and up to all sorts of mischief with her mates in school. There is sexual tension between the girls, between the staff and the teachers; and Colette isn’t shy to write about them. Needless to say, therefore, that this could very well be one of the earliest and more important books with a strong lesbian narrator.

I cannot praise the book enough for its charm and humour, just read it!

Why you should read it:

  • If you ever enjoyed the more tame Enid Blyton versions such as Malory Towers, The Naughtiest Girl or St. Clare’s; this book is a bit of nostalgia in the same vein meant for an adult audience
  • As a testament to breaking the constraints of time. The book is still relevant today in my opinion

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you intend on reading a book with a likable narrator, Claudine is quite the opposite
  • If the story of teenage girls in a school seems childish to you

The Dark

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“I knew them only now when they were lost, I’d loved them without knowing, and only learned of the love in the losing…”

The Dark ~ John McGahern

I was introduced to this book when we read its first page at a workshop, and it had me hooked. From the first words, McGahern was able to mirror the dark, claustrophobic and oppressed world of 1960’s rural Ireland.

The story begins with a father forcing his son to strip for allegedly cursing, bend over a chair and await thrashing, while his siblings watch in terror. It’s a coming-of-age novel, a bildungsroman in its traditional sense but unlike one that you might have read before. The book was banned upon release, forcing McGahern to quit his teaching job and flee to England, for daring to write about the truths of his society. About the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, the violent physical and sexual abuse, incest and the hopeless yearning for freedom.

The book is well written, undoubtedly the work of a master storyteller and a skilled writer. McGahern is able to switch with ease between first, second and third person perspectives within the Chapters, which pleasantly will not throw the reader off.

I implore you to get your hands on this book.

Why you should read it:

  • Because it is an important book, no matter which country you belong to
  • It is a difficult book to read, only for its subject, but one is rewarded with a haunting portrayal of reality

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you might be left squeamish by some graphic scenes of violence or sexual abuse
  • If you’re looking for an easy light read

Eileen

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“It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds – look for the cleanest fingernails.”

Eileen ~ Ottessa Moshfegh

This book is more of a character study than a novel, with the story or rather the action in the story concentrated solely in the last few pages of the book. Eileen Dunlop is a tightly wound twenty-four-year-old, who spends all her days wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing. She works in the local prison, holding no office of importance. She lives alone with an alcoholic father in a house neither of them have bothered to clean since her mother died five years ago.

Eileen is an extreme. We all dream of a better life, but she derives a certain thrill from her pitiable lot. She is preoccupied with her looks, her physical attributes…she obsesses over a coworker who she believes is the perfect man, and is infatuated by beautiful women. She thieves regularly from shops, drinks heavily with her father, rarely washes and ultimately; the reader will put nothing past her, not even a gruesome crime.

I found it easy to read, especially since I read it less as a story but more as a fascinating case study of a deeply disturbed individual.

Why you should read it:

  • If you like reading books driven by character rather than plot
  • If you like detailed psychological thrillers, or simply psychological studies
  • If you don’t mind reading ugliness on a page

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you’re not prepared to look into the filthy, sexually repressive thoughts of a miserable woman
  • If you’re looking for an action packed read

My Name is Lucy Barton

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“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

My Name is Lucy Barton ~ Elizabeth Strout

I will struggle to tell you exactly what this book is about. Relationships, perhaps. Or rather it is like several diary entries of a hugely contemplative person, pieced together. Someone who has yet to make sense of their own life. As I had expected from a novel by Elizabeth Strout, the prose is in elegant style. No frills, no fluff, Strout isn’t trying to make a big show of anything.

Lucy Barton is a mother of two young girls, a budding writer in New York, who comes from hard beginnings. She grew up on a farm, initially living with her family in a garage till they could finally move into a relative’s house. Lucy’s childhood is filled with dread, fear, hunger and loneliness. From those beginnings, she managed to escape. She married a good man, had two girls and for all intents and purposes she is leading an ordinary life. And most of all, she loves her mother.

I should warn you that there isn’t much to the story like I said before, the Chapters are more musings and contemplation than a narrative of plot. It is a gentle book, and has its audience, although I failed to treasure it as much as I would have liked to.

Why you should read it:

  • For its thoughtful message on human character and relationships, on every page
  • For the delicate writing
  • If you like reading introspective books

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you want to read a thrilling story
  • If you like a story with an ending
  • If you don’t want to feel melancholic

The Dinner

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The Dinner ~ Herman Koch

I enjoy a good unreliable narrator. It’s the same thrill some people get from watching horror films; I love it when I can’t predict or trust anything that the narrator is telling me. In my opinion, it is one of the strengths of good writing, if a writer can trick a reader into trusting a narrator and then “aha I gotcha”-ing in the last few pages. Plot twists and surprise endings don’t impress me as much, at least not anymore.The Dinner is a book in translation, and yet it does a brilliant job of presenting crisp dialogue, character observations and also trickery.

The story is quite simple. The novel is divided into the four courses of an elaborate fancy dinner, where two couples are doing nothing more than talking. How has Koch managed to write this as a page-turner? I hear you asking, well, therein lies his craft.

I will say though that I enjoyed the first half of the book more; before the real mystery started to be discussed and revealed. I was revelling in the awkwardness of the situation, the banal small talk; you know where two couples are forced to share a meal together despite absolutely hating each others’ company. In the second half, I started to really dislike the characters. I was on the verge of not appreciating the book, till I reminded myself that a good book is not about whether I connect with or am attracted to the characters.

Why you should read it:

  • If you’re looking for your next thrilling page-turner. Think Gone Girl etc.
  • If you’re looking for an enjoyable, humorous and yet shocking book

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you don’t like reading a book where you don’t like any of the characters
  • If your taste doesn’t lie in dark narrative

Mothering Sunday

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mothering-sunday

“And was she even a maid? And was he even a master? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness.”

Mothering Sunday ~ Graham Swift

Despite the cover, somehow what I was expecting least from this book was sex. Well, no that is incorrect, I wasn’t expecting the story to begin with sex; the first half of this slight read to contain intimate moments in such great detail. Perhaps I was distracted by the title.

‘Mothering Sunday’ is a romance in some ways, a slice of a larger, more complicated life in others. A seven-year secret love affair has been in the works between Jane Fairchild (a maid) and a wealthy English country gentleman (Paul Sheringham). Paul is soon to be married to a woman of his family’s choosing and this secret love affair is going to end, this very afternoon. The afternoon of Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day) when all the servants were given the day off to visit their own mothers.

The writing is sublime, moving and had me very close to tears; with this (to borrow from Julian Barnes’ title) sense of an ending. There is a feeling of foreboding from the very beginning, and the novella takes turns that are unexpected. The beauty of this book is that it isn’t only about this one afternoon, but it is written with a structure that narrates Jane Fairchild’s whole life, without complicating it for the reader.

Why you should read it:

  • Quick, yet lazy read. More like a short story rather than a novella
  • Delicate, elevated prose

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • Most of the story carries on languidly, and to some this might be boring
  • A lot of the writing is more meditation and less story

The Sense of an Ending

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“But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still.”

The Sense of an Ending ~ Julian Barnes

Seldom before have I been made this excitable with the beginning of a book. Barnes writes smoothly, makes you laugh, lectures you on life, makes you feel slightly stupid too when you have to re-read some of the sentences to truly grasp their meaning. Ultimately, however, you remain engrossed in the seemingly ordinary story, because the characters are relatable and you’ve been laughing to yourself the whole way.

The story is quite simple really, it’s being told from memory by Tony Webster who recalls his youth, his childhood friends, and his boyhood romances. If you’ve read or watched ‘Starter for Ten’ by David Nicholls, you’ll realise towards the beginning of this slim novella that this is just a smarter and better written version of a similar sort of plot. Until it’s not.

I’m not quite certain if this book was meant to be written as a mystery because it wasn’t to me. I’ve read reviews where readers claim that they didn’t see the ending coming, but honestly if one has, like me, watched several ‘Drama/Romances’ in their time, and have been reading a book a week, one doesn’t need a particularly creative brain to guess what the outcome is going to be. And if you don’t guess the ending, you can be satisfied that the book did its job of shocking you.

What I’m trying to say is that this book is well written, I recommend it, but it needs to be read for reading’s sake, for the beauty and fun of it and not with the expectation of a big revelation.

Why you should read it:

  • The book is a slow tease, an enjoyable read
  • If you like a quiet well-written book
  • If you are prepared to not expect a big shocking reveal in the end

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you’re expecting likeable characters
  • If you like complex plots and lengthy narratives

Our Souls at Night

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“It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.”

Our Souls at Night ~ Kent Haruf

I will be reading more of Kent Haruf. This is a book which he wrote in full knowledge would be his last. Perhaps this was why he had a keen perspective on what it is like to live abundantly when one is nearing one’s end.

The story takes place in the sleepy town of Holt, which is Haruf’s own fictional place used in most of his other writing as well. Louis and Addie are ageing, have been neighbours for decades and have grown lonely now that they are widowed and their children live away. That is until Addie propositions him, to come and lie with her in her bed at night. She makes it very clear that it is only for the purposes of sharing a bed with someone else, to have the comfort of knowing there is somebody sleeping beside her. There is no romance involved, and sex is as good as out of the question. Louis takes her up on the offer, and what follows is a short and persuading commentary on social structures, what is and is not taboo and just the grace of growing old with someone else.

I finished the book in one go, and despite the simplicity of the plot, I couldn’t put it down. Even though I haven’t yet read anything else by Haruf, all I know is that this book is perfect. It is essential, and I hope I remember it when I am old, and if I ever lose courage.

Why you should read it:

  • Because of its lucidity and lack of embellishments. You will breeze through this one.
  • Because just with this one example, Haruf has proven that he was a master storyteller
  • If you like quiet reads

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you’re looking for a thrilling novel, and expect plot twists

The Upright Heart

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The Upright Heart

 

The Upright Heart ~ Julia Ain-Krupa

Yet another holocaust novel. Sometimes, I simply choose to read a book just by picking up on that one word in its blurb – Holocaust or World War II. This goes on, despite the fact that there are indeed very few of them that I truly like.

The Upright Heart, if nothing else is definitely a fresh perspective on a subject that fascinates many like me. It is essentially a ghost story. The war is over now, and while Poland tries to pick up the pieces, the souls lost in the war still linger, unable to move on. The opening chapter for instance, hooked me, even though I’ve never been a big fan of a ghost as narrator. It starts with the voice of a child like character called Sarah, who we soon discover is a soul departed. She seems to be occupying her old school, where she and her Jewish classmates were all locked in together and the premises was burnt down. Now they all call each other Sarah, as though their given names don’t matter anymore. They are the same, lingering souls.

That was good. I was intrigued, I wanted to know more, but this book left me feeling dissatisfied. There are multiple stories being told simultaneously, all of them connected to ghosts in some way. There are German soldiers trying to get home, out of an ever winding trench. A young orphan boy, a woman who couldn’t save her Jewish friend, and a Polish Christian who gave up her life protecting the family of her Jewish lover.

For me, each story I believe deserved its own book or at least more space in this one. The narratives and the characters seemed to overcrowd this slight book and I failed to truly connect with any particular one.

I wanted to feel anger, hope, outrage, shock; all the emotions I believe one wants to feel when they pick up a book such as this. I was left feeling like the holocaust was used as a backdrop, and not integrated enough into any of the stories.

Why you should read it:

  • If you liked ‘The Book Thief’ and are yearning for another dream-like ghostly narrative
  • If you’re a holocaust fiction junkie

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you’re looking for a light read (plot-wise)

 

I was provided with a galley by the publishers in exchange for an honest review

NW

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NW

 

“…Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.” 

NW ~ Zadie Smith

I just couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. I did of course soldier through to the end, because what did you think I was? Some kind of book abandoner? A coward? That a few experimental chapters and gritty dialogue were going to scare me away? I will, however, never get the last few weeks of my life back. Nobody knows the sacrifices a dedicated bibliophile makes.

I must admit that I haven’t read much of her work, well, nothing else other than On Beauty, which is one of the best books I’ve read in my adult life. (How many other books have I said that about? I urge you to not go through my previous posts and hold me to this.) Why didn’t I read anything else by her since? Perhaps I was afraid of what would happen if I read something I didn’t like, and that horror has been realised. Now I don’t know what to do with myself. Maybe I can pretend I never read NW, or admit that I’m a Zadie Smith champion but only of one of her books. Either way, the damage has been done and her first novel White Teeth shall have to be put off for another five years yet.

NW is alluring at first because Smith starts off with a bang. Set in North West London, which is as self-experimental as the book is itself. Intense characters (there are four main characters in the book), strange inter-personal relationships, council houses, an alien dialect and of course the building up of a sinister feeling. Something is going to happen. These people are going to fall apart. They are trying to escape a life which they never will.

Nothing happens. Maybe something does, but I missed it. There’s a killing, animal injury is churned into the mix, the murderer is revealed; apart from that, I struggled with the short chapters and the inability to form a linear connection. For a sizeable chunk of the novel, about fifty percent of the middle, I didn’t even recognise the characters. That could mean one of two things: Zadie Smith has experimented with this novel and fulfilled her end. Or, I am just not bright enough.

Why you should read it:

  • If you’re an ardent Zadie Smith fan and you believe she can do no wrong
  • If you like reading books that challenge tradition, give you something to work against
  • If you’ve lived in London, or NW and that world fascinates you

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • If you like to be entertained by a book, challenged emotionally and mentally; but don’t come in prepared with an armour and sword ready to battle against the prose.
  • If you want a story