TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

TBR Challenge 2019 – The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Genre: Magic Realism, War

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2001

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Natalia’s country is still recovering from many years of war. She is travelling to a neighbouring country to deliver medicine to an orphanage when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. She recounts the stories that he has told her about the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man and tries to make sense of the future, both for herself and her country. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: Inherited from a relative in 2014.

I didn’t really know anything about this book – where it was set, what it was about but I liked the premise of ‘a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself’ and it is a while since I have read any magic realism so I thought I’d give it a go.

This book is set in an unnamed Balkan country, an area that I must admit I know little about. Of course, I can remember the wars of the 1990s from the news but it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger at the time. So now that is yet another thing to go on my long list of things to find out more about.

The country has been devastated by the war but is now starting to try to recover. Natalia and her friend Zora are doing their bit by delivering medicine to an orphanage across the border. Near the start of this journey, Natalia discovers that her grandfather has died. She begins to tell the stories that he told her about the escaped tiger, the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man.

I enjoyed the mix of myth and reality in these tales and I enjoyed fitting the details of the story together. Obreht’s writing is at its best, I think, when telling these mystical tales of death. I particularly liked the story of Darisa the Bear and how he became so good at hunting. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure what the overall point of the stories was. They seemed disjointed and removed from the modern day story. I don’t think Obreht quite managed to pull the whole thing together.

This is a novel about death and the rites that go with it, both on a personal and universal scale. Natalia is recovering from her Grandfather’s death as her country recovers from war. As such it is not an easy read and is dour in places. However, there are moments of beauty in amongst the grit.

TBR Challenge 2019 – Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

 

Genre: Classics, satire

Narrative style: third person narrative

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1928

Format: paperback

Synopsis: When Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour, his life spirals downwards. He begins his new life at a boys school and ends it in jail. Non of it is Paul’s fault. Events happen to him as he wanders through his life. Paul is an innocent abroad and Waugh uses his journey as an opportunity to satirise the 1920s society. 

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: I inherited this book in 2014 when my husband’s aunt died. 

This was an entertaining read. It was quite different from the only other Waugh I have read – Brideshead Revisited – but was very amusing nonetheless. Paul Pennyfeather is a useful character, wandering oblivious through Waugh’s satirical landscape. He has little will of his own, making nothing happen and, it seems, never truly understanding what is happening to him.

The novel is littered with eccentric characters such as Prendy an ex-vicar plagued by religious doubts or Captain Grimes who is always in the soup. Paul’s first port of call after being sent down from Oxford (after accidentally wandering into the drunken exploits of the Bollinger Club) is a Welsh public school. Here he meets Prendy and Grimes as well as Solomon Philbrick who has told at least three different stories of how he came to be at the school and is one the run from the police.

When Paul falls in love with the mother of one of his charges, his life really starts to take off. Margot Beste-Chestwynde agrees to marry him and immediately sends him off to deliver some women to South America. Paul, of course, has no idea that Margot’s money comes from prostitution and is incredibly surprised when he is arrested on the morning of his wedding for human trafficking.

The novel is very amusing and cleverly mocking of the mores of the time without ever explicitly saying anything. Paul eventually ends up exactly where he started, back at Oxford where nobody recognises him and his life returns to some sort of normality. There is no sense of character development or lessons learned – this is not a bildungsroman. In fact, there is little emotional interest for the reader. Waugh’s satire is clever and funny but I couldn’t help wishing for more emotional depth.

TBR Challenge 2019 – Thank You For The Days – Mark Radcliffe

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir

Narrative Style: First person with each chapter describing a different day.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Radcliffe picks a series of days that have had an effect on his life, some to do with his career, some family and some just for amusement value. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: Since publication in 2009. 

I’ve been a fan of Mark Radcliffe since listening to Mark and Lard on Radio 1. I loved their daft sense of humour, taste in music and their northernness. One of the most annoying things about starting to teach was that I no longer got to listen to them. When I was on school holidays, inevitably it was some one else in the studio as they were also on holiday. I must admit that I don’t get the chance to listen to the radio much these days but I still catch Radcliffe when I can.

Radcliffe is an excellent raconteur and each episode was well paced and well told. Each “day” covered so much more than the event of its title and sometimes it seemed that he would never get to the point but it always turned out that the information had been important after all. There were amusing tales such as Mark and Lard drunk at An Evening with Kylie, various shenanigans with The Family Mahone and the annual radio one photograph. Radcliffe is quite self-deprecating and is quite willing to laugh at himself which made for a pleasant read.

More serious ground was covered in the chapter about John Peel’s death which reminded me how much I missed listening to his show but for the most part this is an upbeat read full of Northern humour and warmth. It almost felt like sitting down in the pub with Radcliffe and having a chinwag. It was very easy to read and easy to warm to him.

My only criticism is that you don’t really get that close to Radcliffe in any emotional way. At one stage he talks about how celebrities have personas that they put on and Radcliffe’s would seem to be humorous Northerner. Nothing really wrong with that as long as you realise that you would not be getting beyond that outer layer.

Books Read in 2015: 53. Persuasion – Jane Austen

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Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: third personimages

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1818

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: I’m not really sure where this copy of Persuasion came from – my husband wasn’t sure either – but it was definitely with us when we moved to this house 8 years ago and quite possibly has lived with us for a lot longer.

Synopsis: Eight years before the start of the story, Anne Elliot allowed herself to be persuaded against marrying Captain Wentworth. Anne completely regrets this decision. She is 27 and still unmarried when Wentworth reappears in her life. Her family are on the brink of financial ruin and Wentworth is in a much better position than before. Will they be reunited in their love or will persuasion again work against them?

I may have mentioned before that I don’t often read the classics. And one of the reasons is that it always feels a little like a school assignment. I’m reading this because it has been deemed a classic rather than I have chosen this because it sounds good. This was no different. It wasn’t particularly a chore – indeed Austen’s prose is pleasurable enough to read – but it didn’t really grab me.

The other thing against it is the fact that it is a romance. This is not my favourite genre. And while there is some interest to be had from the ironic social observations and the well drawn characters, in the end it was just another love story. The only thing that saved this from a lower rating is the fact that it is so well written.

Austen is very good at satirising vanity. The satire was particularly sharp when it came to the vanity of Anne’s father and her sister, Elizabeth. Their vanity was out of keeping with their financial standing and Austen never missed an opportunity to point out their ridiculousness. There was also amusement to be had from the description of the third Elliot sister, Mary who is ridiculously self serving. Their is no doubting that Austen is a master of her craft, this is just not really the sort of book I enjoy.

Books Read in 2015 – 4. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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Genre: Post-Colonial, Feminist, Classics

Narrative Structure: Various first person accounts

Rating: 3/5481558

Published: 1966

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This tells the back story of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. It starts with her childhood and her mother’s story and then moves to tell the story from Rochester’s point of view when he meets her and then she resumes the story when they are in England. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: This is one of those books that has been on my metaphorical shelf for a long time. Although I only bought this copy about three years ago, I first heard of Rhys’ novel about twenty years ago when I was doing my first degree. 

I enjoyed this less than I expected to. It wasn’t a bad story but I expected to love it and I just didn’t. Maybe that was the problem.

I didn’t really take to Antoinette as a narrator although she did not narrate the entire novel. The first part is from her point of view and again, certain parts are narrated  by her later in the novel. As a child, she watches her mother’s life ruined by her marriage and the hatred of fellow islanders. The family fall prey to violent attacks, one of which results in a fire that kills Antoinette’s brother and sends her mother into madness. Her husband is unable to understand and instead hides his wife away. This foreshadows Antoinette’s experience with Rochester (although he is never actually named).

Rochester narrates the next part and it is quickly clear that while he is sexually attracted to Antoinette, he does not love her and the marriage has been for money. He does not understand or even try to understand his new wife and she resorts to Obeah ( a sort of voodoo) to try and control him. He falls prey to the gossip of Daniel who claims to be Antoinette’s illegitimate brother who impugns Antoinette’s reputation and demands money to be kept quiet. There is a clear gulf between the two, caused mostly by the patriarchal society in which they live and the fact that Antoinette with her Creole heritage fits in with neither the black Jamaican nor the White Europeans.

At first, I felt a bit sorry for Rochester. He seemed as much a victim of the time as Antoinette but then he began to act more cruelly towards her – openly committing adultery, for example – I realised that while he had been used, he was still the one who was ultimately in control of the situation. He had all the power, Antoinette had to resort to black magic to try and gain some control.

Finally, they arrive in England and Antoinette has control of the narrative again. Now she is clearly unbalanced and her husband adds to this by keeping her locked in the attic. However, she manages to roam around the house at night like a dream reminder of Rochester’s casual cruelty. She dreams of setting fire to the house and the novel ends as she seems about to bring this dream into reality.

The final part was probably the most successful. I’m not sure that Rhys really captured Rochester’s voice or convinced me of his motivations. Antoinette’s narration was most successful when she was maddest and about to exact her revenge. Ultimately I didn’t feel much about the ending or all the way through really. There is no doubt that this is a clever novel but it left me feeling a little cold.

Another new year

Well, it has taken a while to get round to writing my first blog this year. In fact, the end of last year was so hectic, I never got round to writing an end of year blog which I fully intended. This will have to act as both.

I was pleased with the amount that I read last year and with the fact that I completed the two reading challenges I signed up for. Both of which – eclectic reader challenge and TBR challenge – I have signed up for again. I read some excellent books – The Slap and Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas spring straight to mind, as do The Absolutist by John Boyne and Complicity by Iain Banks and of course, Maddaddam by the amazing Margaret Atwood. I also read some authors that have been on my list for a while – Dorothy L. Sayers, Daphne Du Maurier and John Updike  – not all of which were enjoyed but it felt good to have read them at last.

This year I’m aiming to read more classics so half of the books I have picked for the eclectic reader challenge are pre 1950. Half of those are pre 1900. The first book I finished this year was a spy thriller which was a new genre and hopefully the eclectic reader challenge will continue to encourage me to read new genres.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to keep writing a blog post for each book I read but looking back over last year’s posts, I realised that it was making me think more deeply about what I was reading.

As for writing, while I still aim to write every day, it doesn’t always work. Time is the one commodity I lack at the moment.  I’m still in the process of editing / re-writing Choose Yr Future. It seems like an never-ending task at the moment. However, I’m sure I will recognise the point when I am happy with the storyline and structure and then I will be ready to let beta readers have a look at it. At the minute, I know it is not ready to be seen by other eyes. If I’m not happy with it, I wouldn’t expect others to be.

I’m not feeling downhearted though. I’m still trying to enter as many competitions as I can and while I haven’t won any yet, I’m not going to give up. If you don’t enter, you really don’t have a hope of winning. I enjoy the process of writing/re-writing even though sometimes I feel a bit like Sisyphus pushing the words into place only to realise later that they still don’t fit.