The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I was a little reluctant to begin this book as the cover states it is “The Saddest Story Ever Told” and given the title I assumed, wrongly, that it would be about the war. Thankfully I found it to be far from the saddest story I have ever read, although by the end I did not enjoy it. Just as a side note, I read this book quite some time ago but did not have chance to review it for a long time so apologies if this review is a bit vague!

I’ll start from the beginning which I did find quickly swept me into the story of an American and his wife – John and Florence Dowell – who become friends with a “model couple” – Edward and Leonora Ashburnham – while they are taking an extended holiday in Europe. The couples soon become very close, but as we learn more about the characters the reader discovers that things are not as they may first appear. It was this gradual realisation that, actually, everything I thought I knew about the characters was false which I particularly enjoyed about the book. To be tricked by the writer so completely takes a lot of skill, and I was completely taken in by it.

But, ultimately, it was the unreliable and unlikeable narrator who also made me dislike this book by the end.

“I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze.”

Although I enjoyed making sense of the puzzle at first, I found by around halfway through I just wanted to get to the end of it and the twisting and convoluted plot made me impatient.

The thing I disliked most about this novel was the narrator’s attitude to women. Without giving away the plot, the narrator had reason to dislike certain women but I found his attitude towards them insufferable and he seemed to blame them for all of his and his friends’ woes. If a man were to fall in love with a woman he couldn’t have and made himself miserable then it would be the woman’s fault for enticing him, for example. I can see why become a classic, but it is not one I particularly enjoyed.

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The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

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I read a couple of novels by Muriel Spark when I was at university, but added this one to my list after having seen it recommended by a number of writers. It is completely different to anything I have read before by Spark and was a real page turner. Coupled to the fact that it is extremely short, I read it in a matter of days and I imagine that many people would polish it off in one sitting.

The novel follows a woman, Lise, as she goes on holiday. But we are told a couple of chapters in that “she will be found tomorrow morning dead”, and this fact is alluded to many times throughout the novel. This is one of those stories that will leave you guessing right to the final sentence and, once you have finished reading, suddenly everything falls into place. The shortness of this work also means that nothing is extraneous to the plot and the tension never lets up.

Lise is an unusual and fairly unlikeable character, but a memorable one. Despite the fairly bland description of her as “neither good-looking nor bad-looking” and “as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older”, her behaviour in the opening pages of the book arrested my attention. It is clear that there is something strange about her, but again we do not find out what this is until right at the end.

It’s difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, but I hope I have managed to convey how intriguing and gripping I found The Driver’s Seat. It is a novel that left me with many questions, and perhaps some suspension of disbelief is needed, but it is a book that has stayed with me long after I finished it.

 

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The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

I was inspired to read this book after watching some of the Electric Dreams series which is currently on Channel 4 (UK), and is really excellent in case you haven’t seen it, as well as never having read anything by Philip K. Dick but really thinking I should have. I was also intrigued by the premise of this particular book, which imagines that Germany won World War Two and that the world is under Nazi rule.

It became clear very early on in the novel that (a) I loved the book and (b) it is particularly pertinent to today’s political climate:

“The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Faced this? And – how many of us do know it?”

The novel is set in America and told from multiple viewpoints: a Japanese businessman; a Jewish factory worker; an ‘antiques’ seller; a martial arts instructor, a German spy and several others. Gradually we learn how the Germans came to win the war and some of the chilling events that followed this victory.  There is also the recurring theme of what could have been had the outcome of the war been different, demonstrated most notably through a book which many of the characters are reading called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which tells the story of reality as we know it in a clever story within a story. It is the quest to discover the author of this book, a recluse rumoured to live in an impenetrable castle, which provides the main narrative of the novel.

What I especially enjoyed about The Man in the High Castle was the humour and hope in what you would expect to be a very dark novel. There were many jokes scattered throughout the narrative, particularly in the idea that the Japanese, who now occupy many prominent positions in American society, are huge collectors of ‘authentic’ American artifacts – there is a hilarious moment when a character presents a German spy with a Mickey Mouse watch, and there is a huge black market in fake goods. Dick also makes many tongue-in-cheek jokes about the Nazis’ incompetence:

“If those Nazis can fly back and forth between here and Mars, why can’t they get television going?”

Despite the atrocities which the Nazis have committed, the novel is still hopeful that humanity will triumph and will continue to do so. Dick examines the relationship between light and dark, hope and despair in a timeless way and many of his lines so accurately describe modern society and the fear that many people feel today:

“The universe will never be extinguished because just when the darkness seems to have smothered all, to be truly transcendent, the new seeds of light are reborn in the very depths.”

Dick’s comments on leadership, power, marginalisation, persecution and global warming seem ever so timely, but I think that sadly they will always be relevant in discussing the flaws of humanity.

The ending of the book was suitably strange and, I have a feeling, will divide people over the book – I liked it, my husband didn’t. But I think it’s a novel which is very worth reading and still as relevant now as when it was written. I will definitely be reading more by this author.

The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (translated by Arthur Waley)

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Image from Wikipedia

I chose to read The Tale of Genji as part of my quest to read classic books by  female authors from around the world for the Classics Club 2016 reading challenge (and yes I am slightly late in finishing it!) I chose this particular book as  it is one of the earliest novels in existence (written in 10,000 AD) and I have been interested in Japanese literature since I went there a few years ago, although I have to admit I didn’t realise how long the book was until after I had pledged to read it!

This is such a long book it is difficult to know where to start with a summary, but the plot loosely follows the fate of Prince Genji – a man of dazzling beauty and many accomplishments, who it seems seduces the whole of Kyoto. He is the son of the emperor and his concubine so does not have a direct claim to the throne, but nevertheless holds a high position in court which is accentuated by his other talents. He has several wives and so many relationships with other women that it is almost impossible to remember who is who. As Genji grows older and eventually dies – an event which happens well before the end of the book – the narrative follows his descendants and other characters related to Genji.

Genji himself I found an ambiguous character. On the one hand he is loved by almost everyone who comes into contact with him, mainly due to his looks but also because of his talents at calligraphy, poetry and musical ability (all of which seem to be what a person’s character at this time is judged by). He is nicknamed ‘the shining one’ and it is impossible to not admire him in some ways as his virtues are sung non-stop by the author. Yet, judging him by today’s standards he could be viewed as a rapist and a paedophile and, although I had to remind myself that today’s standards did not exist at that time, it was impossible for me to not judge Genji (and many other characters) for his actions towards women. Often his pursuit of women seems like a sport:

“As a matter of fact, he was not very desperately in love with her ; but her apparent indifference had piqued him and he was determined to go on till he had gained his point.”

The (un)fortunate women lose their reputation whether or not they give in to the men’s relentless advances, and seem to have little choice in anything once they have been singled out. Yet Genji does look after and provide for all the women he has made a conquest of, which is the feature I admired most about him.

I had mixed feelings about this book, yet the fact that I finished and never got particularly frustrated at it (at over 1100 pages) indicates that I did enjoy it overall. I found it a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and history, and the language of the book was particularly poetic (I think accentuated by the edition I chose) as well as being surprisingly readable. Although the plot meanders along without any cliff-hanger moments, there was plenty going on in the narrative and despite getting repetitive after a while I never felt as though I couldn’t go on. Despite this, there is no getting away from the fact that it is a very long novel and I am sure that many people will feel about it as I did about Don Quixote. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the poor women who did not seem to have a good time of it no matter what happened to them. The ending is abrupt and doesn’t finalise anything – one gets the impression that the author could have gone on and on without ever finishing had she the time to do so. After the umpteenth story of a man chasing after a reluctant woman and an account of all of the poems that are exchanged it certainly feels like the same story with different characters. Yet something kept me reading and, due to the beauty of the prose and the glimpse into a fascinating past, this is a book which I am glad I read.

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier


I cannot believe that, after reading and really enjoying Rebecca about eighteen years ago, I have never picked up anything else by Daphne Du Maurier until now. I absolutely loved these unsettling short stories, particularly the title story and one about a man’s ill-treated wife who dies and comes back to haunt him as a tree. All of the stories have a sinister and supernatural element to them and all of them were gripping and very readable.

The most famous story in the collection has to be The Birds, which I enjoyed as a film but preferred as a short story. Even before the birds begin to attack (which happens very quickly – Du Maurier dives straight in to her story), there is a sense of unease rapidly building:

Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still.”

I was amazed at how quickly Du Maurier builds tension from the first page and sustains it all through the story. The story is never gruesome – that is left to the reader’s imagination – but it certainly made me wary of flocks of birds for a while after reading it! The ending too was beautifully done, and this is definitely one of the best short stories I have ever read.

My other favourite was The Apple Tree, in which a man is haunted by his dead wife in the form of the story’s title. It doesn’t sound very sinister, but this story really demonstrates Du Maurier’s skill I think because of this and the ways in which his wife exacts her revenge as a tree are both enjoyably imaginative and superbly sinister:

“The martyred bent position, the stooping top, the weary branches, the few withered leaves that had not blown away with the wind and rain of the past winter and now shivered in the spring breeze like wispy hair; all of it protested soundlessly to the owner of the garden looking upon it, ‘I am like this because of you, because of your neglect.'”

Although these two were my favourites, the other stories in the collection were also superb and deal with a woman who joins a mysterious community, a number of sinister affairs, and a secretive old man. I will certainly be looking for copies of Du Maurier’s other short story collections after reading this one.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Shreiner

The Story of an African Farm is just that, a tale spanning many years which tells the tale of a farm inhabited by Tant Sannie, her step-daughter Em, an orphan called Lyndall an overseer referred to as the German and his son Waldo. In the first part of the book their lives are disrupted by the arrival of Bonaparte Blenkins – an Englishman who soon alters the lives of all the characters on the farm. And it is another arrival in part 2 which drives the narrative of the rest of the book.

There were many things I loved about this novel. Both the characters and the setting were wonderfully drawn, and the opening paragraph of the novel immediately transports the reader to Africa:

“The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.”

Shreiner paints the central characters with both sympathy and humour, and raises many universal themes such as coming of age, inequality, feminism, the meaning of life… This book really seems to cover everything. Despite some moments of despair, Shreiner always manages to balance this with hope in the same way that sadness is balanced by humour – and this I think is what raises this book above many others. No matter what happens to the characters, they always continue to hope:

“Nothing lasts forever, not even the night.”

I did find the second half of the book to be less driven by narrative and more reflective and, on occasion, I became less engaged with it as a result. However, the book is worth reading for the first half alone and, although I could say a lot more about it here, I will keep my commentary brief in order to allow you to discover this book for itself.

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Don Quixote: Part 1 by Miguel de Cervantes

When I began the Classics Club challenge, to read fifty classics in five years, my biggest dread was to find myself struggling through huge tomes and hating every minute. While most classics have justly earned their place in literary history, it is inevitable that not every person will enjoy every book and not all classics are equally enthralling. Up until Don Quixote I have encountered the odd challenge but nothing I couldn’t overcome. However, as you may notice from the title of my review I have finally been defeated!

I decided for my own sanity to compromise with this particular title, and have only read part 1 of 2 (but when I say only, I have spent months battling through the hundreds and hundreds of pages which make up part 1). I didn’t really know what to expect from this book before I began it, apart from being vaguely aware of the two main  characters – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – and made it through the first hundred or so pages with relative ease. Don Quixote lives in the village of La Mancha, Spain but decides one day to become a knight errant and sets off without any worldly possessions save his horse Rocinante to promote chivalry through his courageous actions and win the heart of Lady Dulcinea del Toboso – a peasant woman from a neighbouring village upon whom Don Quixote bestows a grand name and his lovestruck affections unbeknown to her:

“it is impossible that there could be a knight-errant without a lady, because to such it is as natural and proper to be in love as to the heavens to have stars.”

In the interests of becoming a real knight errant, Quixote also recruits a squire – Sancho Panza – who blindly follows him through all his (mis)adventures on the promise of a kingdom of his own following the conquest of far off lands and giants.

Mostly ridiculous, Don Quixote’s quests see him battling real and (usually) imaginary foes in the interests of restoring chivalry and achieving glory in his lady’s name. He also meets many characters along the way who have their own story to tell and who are sometimes kind, sometimes cruel to our hero. And sadly, this is where I lost interest. I found the plot to meander so slowly that I groaned at every new, imaginary quest, and found myself skimming to get to the end of every story begun by a new character. There were redeeming features – plenty of humour (much of it toilet related that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern comedy), a parody of fantastical knights errant who gave no heed to how they would pay their way,the ridiculousness of the imaginary foes they battled, and a look at how chivalry is a dying value in today’s world (or indeed in the 1600s when this was published). All in all, it was just too long and too repetitive for me to enjoy it and so I will leave my review there.

I would love to hear anybody else’s feelings about this particular book – have you read it? Have I done this classic a huge disservice in dismissing it? Or is it just one of those books that could have done with being a lot shorter? Please let me know what you think.

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Image from The Baldwin Project