Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

While Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen is free on Project Gutenberg, it isn’t on the Big Read list. Despite numerous full-costume adaptions, the novel didn’t make it into the top 200.

No, dear reader, S&S is not part of my main reading challenge – it’s part of my latest challenge. Before you recoil in horror, I should say that this challenge is mini indeed: it’s to read All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth* Smith alongside the three Jane Austen novels it covers. Which I thought matched the three on The List exactly, but they don’t. So I’ve been reading S&S rather than Persuasion but if AJS helps get me through Emma, I’ll be well pleased.

S&S is an important book – it’s taught in schools, it’s been made into countless full-costume dramas, and has been rewritten to include sea monsters, a clear sign of modern relevance in a classic work.

The novel tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. It starts just after the death of their father: the estate has been left to their half-brother, so the female Dashwoods have to move out. They have very little money, and would normally stay put, I should think, or live in smaller house on the estate but the brother is grouchy, his wife is worse, and their mother’s cousin offers them a cottage in Far Awayshire, so they go, leaving behind the man Elinor hopes to marry. Marianne immediately falls in love with a handsome stranger, but naturally it’s not as easy as that.

I have mixed feelings about this book – if it was a modern romance, set nowadays, I would have thrown it at the wall. If it had been written by a modern author, I may have given it shorter shrift, too. The problem is that I liked one of the sisters (Elinor) and found the other deeply annoying. I enjoyed one romance (Elinor’s, again) and found the other unsatisfying.

Selfish and self-effacing
Marianne and her mother are all about feeling – Marianne is 17 when the story opens, with all the arrogance, melodrama and selfishness that entails. She says things like:

A woman of seven and twenty…can never hope to feel or inspire affection again

which got my back up slightly, and constantly tells her sister, who is quietly nursing a broken heart and painful secrets she mustn’t share for much of the novel, that her silence means she can’t be feeling anything.

One always brings one’s personal perspective to a novel, and being in the process of wading through a deep sadness, I’m more than ever on Elinor’s side and more than ever furious with Marianne. If anyone is to have breakfast, someone has to stop weeping long enough to make it – a fact that Elinor accepts and Marianne ignores. Her behaviour is thoughtless, selfish and cruel to her sister – and she glories in it as right, just and romantic. It’s bloody infuriating.

So why didn’t I give up on the book entirely? Well, dear reader, it’s the writing and the firm knowledge that Austenn is on my side. After all, she describes Marianne’s trials as

that violent sorrow which Marianne was in all probability not merely giving way to as a relief, but feeding and encouraging as a duty.

which is just right. I’ve seen that – have you?

Elinor is only 19, as far as I can tell, when the book starts but her chance to be young and carefree is sucked away by the behaviour of her mother and sister. I don’t really see what else she could have done, but I could wish a bit more backbone for her occasionally, if only because Marianne would so benefit from a short, sharp shock. But there again, that sort of thing was known to send a delicate girl into a decline – I struggle to suggest any suffragist actions for Austen’s characters as they are so bound about by respectability.

Romantic and pragmatic
I mentioned in my review of Pride and Prejudice that I was surprised by how pragmatic everyone in the novel is about marriage. S&S shows what could happen when people weren’t so pragmatic – on two levels, minor flaws and major falls. Like P&P it has a moral warning, in the shape of a young girl (two, in this one in fact) seduced and abandoned by a rogue. The rogue, one discovers, is fairly quickly forgiven while the young woman – if she survives at all – can be glimpsed only from afar as a cautionary tale. I’m sure it was the reality at the time, but I find it disgusting.

The minor fall is almost more interesting – Marianne, seems to almost ruin herself merely by hankering after a man who has made her no promises, longing for him and – most shocking – writing to him. As he is a cad of the first water, she has a lucky escape. Naturally, she’s duly grateful and gets tidied away neatly.

This tidying away of Marianne, who is somehow soiled before she’s even 20, just by falling in love with the wrong man, annoyed me no end, and I can see why the marriage seemed a good one on paper, but it seemed a soul-crushing punishment for a spirited girl – and I use the phrase deliberately, she’s part of a long tradition. I don’t like Marianne, but I don’t want her destroyed, and those seem to be the only options.

*Apologies for getting the author’s middle name wrong initially.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Voted the nation’s second favourite book, #2 Pride and Prejudice is available for free on Project Gutenberg, along with Jane Austen’s other novels.

Two hundred years old this year, Pride and Prejudice still has a strong hold on the popular imagination, bolstered by some excellent adaptions. The book tells the story of the five Bennet sisters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia. With no fortune of their own, at least one needs to make a good match – to marry someone rich enough to support her mother and sisters after their father’s death – and their mother is frantically worried this won’t happen.

Lovely, but not beloved
I can’t say I love Pride and Prejudice but I did enjoy rereading it. It’s a delicately crafted book, and I find it hard to remember all the things I liked about it even a few days after reading it. Austen has a lovely turn of phrase, and it’s hard to sum up or describe my favourite parts as it’s all so interconnected: I really like the bit where — but only because of — and the set up forty chapters earlier which meant that –.

In one sense, Pride and Prejudice is a pure romance: the story is about falling in love and you expect at least one wedding and a happily-ever-after. (I’m inclined to agree with Mrs Bennet that with five daughters of marriageable age, plus the handsome young men mentioned in the first chapter, you’d think one would manage to get hitched…) and Austen’s work has certainly spawned the whole genre of Regency Romance (the Regency only lasted a decade and there must be a thousand books set then) but Pride and Prejudice has something the later books lack: a sense of how very serious this whole business of matchmaking is.

It’s easy to fall in love with Elizabeth, and my name-sister is one of my favourite characters, but as you watch her romance unfold bit by bit, you realise that both she and the more obviously romantic Jane are deeply pragmatic people. While they’re looking for love, that’s not enough to make a happy marriage – an idea that modern romance novels and modern romantics could do well to remember.

Well worth a read
I’m not surprised that P&P is so high up the Big Read list. It’s a beautiful book, and can be read on so many levels. I’ve regularly been surprised by the books I’ve read – books I thought I knew well, like Winnie-the-Pooh, simply because I’ve read them and could recite the plot – and this was no exception. I was happily chuntering through the book, judging the characters and deciding who had been naughty and nice (who deserved a happily-ever-after) when Lydia’s departure from Brighton completely bowled me over. Up to that point, I’d been enjoying the story but it was a warm bath, not a parachute jump. But that chapter was like a bucket of cold water: invigorating and shocking, although not, in this case, unpleasant.

Without paying attention, I’d begun to care about the characters, to understand a value set I don’t share and to want the best for each of them, even the annoying ones. I’m usually quite glib about Austen, I read the books originally simply to have an opinion, which was a requirement in my set, both at school and university, but perhaps I won’t be in future. I’m looking forward to reading the next Austen on the list – probably Emma – and thinking about slipping Sense and Sensibility in first, even though it’s – gasp! – not on the list at all.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Climb every mountain (and then ski down)

Climb every mountain (and then ski down)

White, snow-covered mountains (the Swiss alps at Leysin) seen under a blue sky on a sunny day

This shot is taken at one of my favourite beautiful places. Here, I’m standing at the top of one of the lifts in Villars, a ski resort I’ve been going to since I was tiny, looking out at Leysin, another resort I’ve been skiing at forever.

The two peaks so close together make Leysin easy to spot from much further away. They are the Tour d’Ai (2295m) on the left and the Tour de Mayen (2331m) on the right. You can see the village (1350m) spread out on the left – it’s been a tourist destination for over 100 years.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Another one of my childhood favourites, #57 The Secret Garden is available for free on Project Gutenberg and in the Kindle store.

First published in 1910, The Secret Garden tells the story of two spoiled children who save themselves and each other with the help of a bit of ground and a local lad with a thick Yorkshire accent. It’s a charming novel and likely to be a favourite with generations to come.

Of a gilded age
I was surprised to find out that The Secret Garden was published in the 20th century, honestly, as to me it reads very much like Victorian children’s literature. The children are front and centre, speak in a fairly natural fashion and are concerned with fairly childish things. It’s easy to read and the messages are carried by a good plot and pleasing style but it’s highly moral in tone, presenting a clear path to correct living. It’s got a similar tone and themes to Heidi and Little Women, published 30 and 50 years earlier.

Like Heidi, it also deals with the poor health of upper-class children who are rescued by a special bit of ground (here the wind from the Yorkshire moors rather than Alpine fresh air) and a nature sprite in the form of a local child. The Secret Garden seems more plausible than Heidi as the children are mostly in recovery from being spoiled and bad-tempered, so a dose of fresh air and someone who cares but doesn’t pander to their whims is probably fair medicine.

Poor but happy
Hodgson Burnett’s novels regularly feature trips into poverty – probably the most famous example is Sara Crewe in A Little Princess who goes from star pupil of a select boarding school to slavvy over night, but this also occurs in The Lost Prince and Little Lord Fautleroy. In each case, the child’s higher birth shines through and the poverty is quite genteel – no swearing, no gin, even if the character is sleeping on the streets. And naturally, there’s a happy ending where the child is lifted back up to their rightful situation.

The poor characters encountered along the way fall into two camps: villains (who move the story along with their cruelty) and saints. Broadly speaking, anyone who is not a villain is likely to be so cheerful, so helpful, so willing to go out of their way and take serious risks to better the situation of the lead character that you may have to grit your teeth and turn the page.

As a child, I noticed that some children were better off and some weren’t, and wondered why Sara’s fellow slavvy in A Little Princess didn’t also get to go to school, once they’d been rescued, but didn’t think any further. In The Secret Garden, poverty is at a distance – it visits in the form of Dickon, a nature sprite with a kind heart and a thick Yorkshire accent. Dickon is one of about 12 children and lives in a tiny cottage on the moor. His father seems to be gone, and his mother gets by, feeding and clothing the kids without charity. And yet, she somehow finds the resources to feed the children of the manor house on an almost daily basis for several weeks or months. It seems willfully ignorant, on the author’s part, of the impact an extra two mouths would have on a family described as being short on basics.

I find it frustrating as Hodgson Burnett’s books – and the whole genre of children’s literature before the First World War – so often focused on moral behaviour, being good, kind, loving and generous, but there’s little sense of responsibility shown for the human beings suffering nearby, few examples of how to deal kindly, fairly and generously with the servants of the house even. Over all, there’s a much stronger message to be kind to a cabby’s horse than the cabby’s children – let them eat bootstraps, indeed.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

New Year, No Goals?

New Year, No Goals?

If you’ve met me in real life, you may be wondering why I haven’t posted anything about New Year’s resolutions yet. My first response to any problem or project is a list, and I usually have a dozen on the go at once. I have lists of books I want to read, places I want to visit, things I need to do before next Wednesday and ideas for a house I might have when I’m retired. Last year I said:

My life is quite flexible and interesting (rather than predictable and comfortable) and I like it that way. It stays that way in part because I keep making goals to change things, try things and visit new places

and finished optimistically with:

Taking the time to write these lists and this post remind me that there are a lot of things I’m looking forward to doing in 2012. All in, I think it’s going to be a really good year. I hope it rocks for you, too.

As usual, I’ve been terrible at predicting at the start of the year where I’d be when I ended it, so a lot of the goals went by the wayside. And this year has had its good moments, but also a lot of sadness.

The net result is that this year, I’m thinking small. I still want to try new things, go new places, but I’m not ready to commit to a big project. I don’t expect to go round the world, run a marathon or write a novel this year. I could really use your help finding things to do. Suggest something you enjoy, or you think I might enjoy, and help me expand my list.

I’m particularly interested in:

  • Swiss things and things in Switzerland (books, films, food, museums, mountains…)
  • things you’d like to read a blog post about (could be anything!)
  • books (always, any genre)
  • places to visit (ideally in Europe, due to cost)
  • cool things I can do as a one-off (go to a zumba class, bake a cake, ride a horse…)
  • knitting patterns and challenges

Any suggestions? You could change my life, you know!

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Back in Cambridge for a few days, one of my first stops was the library and I was thrilled to find #177 Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl on the shelves. While I’ve tried to keep all the books I ever loved (not the most sensible of projects) we don’t have a copy of this one.

Fantastic Mr Fox is the story of a family of foxes who live on a hill. At the bottom of the hill are three big farms, and every night Mr Fox goes out to steal a hen or goose or duck from one of the farms to feed his family. Unsurprisingly, the farmers object, and as the story starts they’ve decided to do something about this theft.

I loved the book as a kid and really enjoyed rereading it. I didn’t enjoy the recent film as much, but it does have the voice of George Clooney in it, which may make it more appealing to some.

Entirely (un)natural
All books with talking animals present an odd, unnatural view of nature – it’s inevitable as animal societies don’t work in polite, civilized ways and accuracy wouldn’t fit the fairy tale. One thing I always wonder about is how the author decided which animals can talk and which can’t. Broadly speaking, if it can talk, it’s a friend, not food, to slightly misquote the sharks in Finding Nemo. So I can understand why foxes could talk to badgers but the chickens don’t talk (you have to read The Fox Busters by Dick King-Smith for their side of this story) – but why do foxes talk to rabbits? rats? Foxes eat rabbits – they’re one of the threats in Watership Down – but in Fantastic Mr Fox mammals are not on the menu.

I’m clearly over-thinking this, but I do find it interesting, particularly when two natural enemies team up. In The Princess and the Frog, the frog tries to eat a bug, who immediately becomes a friend and rescuer. Perhaps animals are meant to represent our better selves, but I’d like a little more Darwinian caution.

A life of crime
Criminal behaviour is often rewarded in children’s stories, so Mr Fox’s life of crime doesn’t really stand out. I do wonder how well the story would have gone down with children who have chickens as pets or farm animals – foxes can do an immense amount of damage if they get into a coop, while Mr Fox is quite restrained.

The book is also definitely about Mr Fox – it’s his crimes and his battle with the farmer that put others in danger. One thing I did like about the movie was that Mrs Fox (no other name given in either text, very annoying) was also a sneak-thief and quite as good as her husband. She seems to be taking a few years out the raise the cubs, rather than be entirely dependent – a little more natural, perhaps.

While I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and do recommend Fantastic Mr Fox, it reminded me that there’s another author I should be recommending and rereading – Dick King-Smith. Writing for children, he published dozens of books between 1978 and 2001. He’s best known for The Sheep-Pig which was made into the film Babe, but I don’t think it’s his best work. I loved The Fox Busters (about three female chickens defending their family from foxes), Harry’s Mad (about a boy and an incredibly intelligent parrot), Tumbleweed (about a knight and the witch who rescues him) and Magnus Powermouse (catchphrase: “nasty cat, bite you” still in use in our family).

One of the sad things about the list is that so many truly excellent and well-loved authors are missing – it’s inevitable, but I’m a little shocked that Dick King-Smith and Diana Wynne Jones didn’t rate at all, to name just two of my best-loved authors.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Some weeks ago I read an article by one Joe Queenan titled ‘My 6,128 Favorite Books‘. I mostly enjoyed the article – it’s lovely to read about someone with reading habits as eccentric as my own (he once tried to spend a year only reading books he thought he’d hate, I once tried to read the school library alphabetically, both goals predictably ill-fated) – but the section I’ve been thinking about since is this:

Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after. [emphasis mine]

I disagree.

I think it’s fair to say I’m ‘engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books’, and you may not need any more evidence than my 200 books project, but in case you do:

  • I taught myself to read while walking shortly after I learned to read, and always have a book in my pocket – sorry Mum, I know I gave you palpitations worrying I’d get run over
  • Until I was 20 I never willingly gave away or sold or traded a book – even ones belonging to my brother which I didn’t like
  • I still spend more money and far more time on buying and reading books than on any other hobby – yes my book stash is bigger than my yarn stash

So, credentials established, here’s my problem: I love ebooks. I love ebooks more than paper books, and I wish I could magically convert all my paper books into ebooks.

When my parents bought me a Kindle, it seemed to them like an obvious gift for the reasons above. At the time, K and I were sharing a flat and moving regularly, so anything which stemmed the weight of books to be boxed and carried should have been welcome.

I was skeptical. I loved books, books with covers and editions and age. Books with smells, mostly pleasant. Books on my shelf, showing visitors my erudition, books on the bedside table ripe with possibilities.

And yet, the books I have in paper form, the books I’ve loved over the years, which I’ve kept and carried, stored safe from water, fire and small children, I rarely read. Because I can only carry one around at a time. Because they’re fragile from age and wear. Because they’re usually in a different country or town or in a box in an attic or lost or leant. Because I had to give some of them away, or we’d be drowning in books, so that I know I have had copies of Lolita, The Satanic Verses and several other Big Read books but given them away, unread, because there’s only so much space for paper.

Ebooks are a salvation. I can access every single ebook I’ve every bought or been given from anywhere in the world. If my Kindle gets lost or stolen or smashed I can get a new one, use a smartphone or a laptop and the books are still there, unchanged.

I no longer have to cull my collection and cull again when we move. Books I didn’t like are as weightless as perennial favourites.

It’s all about access
Growing up as an English-language reader in Switzerland, finding books was mostly luck. Luckily, my parents had a good collection, and let me roam it at will. Luckily, they were willing to volunteer at the American Library (‘as we’re there every week’), to give me money for book sales at school, to spend precious home-country time trawling through bookshops.

But with all this wealth, there were things I missed: the second book in the What Katy Did series, the final one in the Emily Climbs series, the information that Diana Wynne Jones wrote more than three books, that Connie Willis wrote at all. Any series, however short, was liable to have holes in, even in the library. School stories, like Mallory Towers, were particularly frustrating as they’re so linear. The Trebizon series was, as far as I was concerned, only one book.

A credit card of my own and the rise of the big, online book sellers alleviated the problem but raised their own frustrations: high postage costs, treks to the Royal Mail depot and the usual risks of buying a pig in a poke.

Now, I can be in Switzerland (as I am), remember a book I read once and liked, immediately download a sample (yes, I still like it) and then blow all my mad money reading the whole 10-book series in less than a month.

It’s bliss.

So while I can’t touch or smell an ebook, while part of me misses displaying my collection (hence the blog, the G+ stream), my ebooks are still ‘books that [I] can depend on. Books that make [me] believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.’

And that’s what makes them books.

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

Another Jacqueline Wilson, #80 Double Act tells the story of twin girls, Ruby and Garnet, who although they’re identical on the outside are rather different on the inside. The girls’ lives are changing rapidly: their father has a new partner and it means upheaval all round. With a new school, new town and new family, the twins need to decide whether to fight to remain the same or let themselves be different.

I really enjoyed the book, finding it a light, quick read. Like all Wilson’s books, this one is grounded in the real world and sad stuff does happen, but it’s not one of her deep, issues-heavy books. It’s probably appropriate for kids starting to read on their own or reading confidently alone.

Who do you want to be?
The twins are too young for this to be a coming of age novel, but they do face the same questions which are central to books like Catcher in the Rye: ‘who am I?’ and ‘who do I want to be?’. Being twins has burdened them with a certain set of expectations, and their strengths can also become their weaknesses: as they’re seem as a unit by the outside world (even their father and grandmother often treat them as one) they’re very attached to each other, but also struggle to form other friendships without betraying their bond.

The struggle between togetherness and separateness is ongoing as people grow and change, and I imagine most people will have some experience of it, whether it’s parent and child, an absorbing friendship or an intense romance. Wilson is writing about a particular form, and the story is aimed at young children, but honestly, you could rewrite it with people of any age and it would work well.

Illustration quirk
According to the introduction, the illustrations were drawn by two artists (Nick Sharratt and Sue Heap) who each drew one of the twins. I was surprised, honestly, as even with this tip off I couldn’t tell which artist had drawn which twin or who had done the rest of the images. It’s a neat analogy for the central issue in the story: although the pictures may look alike, they’re from quite separate sources.

Reading Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson books reminded me how much I enjoy good illustrations. They really add something to a book, particularly when the subject is unfamiliar. For example, I enjoyed the film of The Devil Wears Prada much more than the book as I couldn’t picture the clothes so had no idea if the author was talking someone up or down, if they looked good or a hot mess, and so on.

The illustrations in Double Act round the story out, showing us things the twins won’t tell us explicitly and giving less confident readers another way into the story.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and am happy to recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Looking forward

Looking forward

Sunrise. Alps in the distance across Lake Geneva, water, sky and mountains tinged pink. Black silhouette trees in foreground.

2012 has been a rough year and although I put it behind me with mixed feelings, I’m happy to welcome 2013.

It’s a good time to start a new project: A Picture and a Hundred Words is a way to show you more photos. I tend to only blog pictures I’ve just taken, so if I’m busy (e.g. travelling) I don’t share all the photos I’d like to.

This shot of the sun rising over the Alps and Lake Geneva, taken a couple days ago, doesn’t do the scene justice, but was nonetheless well worth getting up for.