Sunday 29 April 2012

James, Henry "The American"

James, Henry "The American" - 1875

1875, towards the end of the 19th century, society thinks it has become more modern. But has it really? A rich American moves to Europe where he meets a French woman and they fall in love. But the class difference stands between them, his money does not make up for a snobbery that has been cultivated for centuries. Social traditions are so important to her family.

I love reading about the different kind of world in the past, especially if it was written from a contemporary point of view. Henry James is the American Jane Austen, he points out all the problems society had at the time without being able to show a solution, even a glimmer of hope because he couldn't see it from where he stood.

I especially like the style of writing these authors employed. It's a pleasure to read, even if it was just for the words and not the story. But the plot is quite interesting, too. Good book.

In this classic collision of the New World with Old Europe, James weaves a fable of thwarted desire that shifts between comedy, tragedy, romance, and melodrama.

From the back cover:

"'You, you a nun; you with your beauty defaced and your nature wasted you behind locks and bars! Never, never, if I can prevent it!'

A wealthy American man of business descends on Europe in search of a wife to make his fortune complete. In Paris Christopher Newman is introduced to Claire de Cintre, daughter of the ancient House of Bellegarde, and to Valentin, her charming young brother. His bid for Claire's hand receives an icy welcome from the heads of the family, an elder brother and their formidable mother, the old Marquise. Can they stomach his manners for the sake of his dollars? Out of this classic collision between the old world and the new, James weaves a fable of thwarted desire that shifts between comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama a fable which in the later version printed here takes on some of the subtleties associated with this greatest novels.

Friday 27 April 2012

Dickey, Eric Jerome "The Other Woman"

Dickey, Eric Jerome "The Other Woman" - 2003

This book looked interesting, a book about a modern marriage. They are separated already at the beginning of the story through their work, they rarely meet. The consequences are inevitable. The relationship ends in betrayal. This could have been an interesting novel, the plot was not bad. But the writing was. Not my cup of tea. Disappointing.

From the back cover:

"Eric Jerome Dickey strides boldly over the minefield that is modern marriage. The central couple's biggest challenge is timing: He works days; she works nights. Instead of growing together, they're rapidly drifting apart, coexisting on stolen phone calls from work, punctuated by occasional bedroom encounters that leave them both feeling even emptier and more alone. When she finds out about his affair-and starts her own-the delicate fabric of their marriage is torn irrevocably asunder. Or is it? In Dickey's expert hands, what begins as a seemingly unforgivable betrayal segues into the sexy and searing story of a man and a woman at a pivotal turning point in their relationship. Only time will tell whether they'll let it all go...or can hold on to the love that drew them together in the first place."

Monday 23 April 2012

Vonnegut, Kurt "Breakfast of Champions"

Vonnegut, Kurt "Breakfast of Champions" - 1973

I don't remember when I heard the word "vonnegutesque" for the first time but I remember thinking "what a wonderful word". If you spelled his name according in German and translated it, you would get the expression "good bliss", so maybe that added to the good feeling I had about that name.

When I picked up this book, I fell in love with the description already: "In a frolic of cartoon and comic outbursts against rule and reason, a miraculous weaving of science fiction, memoir, parable, fairy tale and farce, Kurt Vonnegut attacks the whole spectrum of American society, releasing some of his best-loved literary creations on the scene."

A "frolic", that is the right description. What a whirlwind! The story jumps around in a funny way. There is satire, magic, a mix between comic and novel, drama and tragedy. The whole book seems like an explanation for aliens, is this how they would see our world? Probably, I think Vonnegut draws a good line, his criticism of modern (American) society is to the point. Ouch!

I also love his playing with words just for the sake of it. When he sees the name of a truck company, Pyramid, he asks "why would anybody in the business of high speed transportation name his business ... after buildings which haven't moved an eighth of an inch since Christ was born?" Apparently, the answer is "he liked the sound of it". And I liked the sound of so many words Kurt Vonnegut used.

This book is hilarious, it gives you a good laugh. But it is also very critical. I loved it.

From the back cover:

"In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s  most beloved characters, the aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth."

Really have to check out "Slaughterhouse-Five".

Sunday 22 April 2012

Forest, Jim "The Ladder of the Beatitudes"

Forest, Jim "The Ladder of the Beatitudes" - 1999

Another great book by Jim Forest. If you want to explore Christianity, if you want to get closer to your religion, these are the books you should read. Jim has a great way of describing any part of our belief in giving real life examples and explaining scripture drawing from his own experiences and/or those of friends. His books are easy to read but not an easy read.

In this work, he describes the Beatitudes. For those who don’t know what that means, I am sure you have heard the words "Blessed are the poor in spirit".

A lot of topics in this book speak to me. I just want to quote and comment on one issue I found on page  49: "Few aspire to humility; we prefer being proud. 'I'm proud to be .... (fill in the blank).' We’re proud of who we are, what we’ve done, the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Coming from 'humble origins' means not being born with a silver spoon in your mouth but, through perseverance and hard work, leaving poverty behind and achieving things to be 'proud of'."

I have a huge problem with racism and I believe that patriotism is the first step towards it, same as being proud of anything we haven't done ourselves. Jim Forest just knows how to express this in much a better way than I ever will be able to.

How can you not admire this guy?

From the back cover:

"Drawing on stories from the lives of the saints, scripture, and everyday life, Jim Forest opens up the mysteries of the beatitudes. These ancient blessings, with which Christ began his Sermon on the Mount, are all aspects of communion with God. As Forest shows, they are like rungs on a ladder, each one leading to the next. They appear at the doorway of the New Testament to provide an easily memorized summary of everything that follows, right down to the crucifixion ('Blessed are you who are persecuted') and the resurrection ('Rejoice and be glad')"

Also read: "Praying with Icons", "The Road to Emmaus. Pilgrimage as a Way of Life" and "Confession. Doorway to Forgiveness".

Saturday 21 April 2012

Moyle, Franny "Constance"

Moyle, Franny "Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde" – 2011

I love Oscar Wilde and I love biographies. So, when I discovered this biography about Oscar Wilde's wife, I didn't have to think twice. I just had to read it.

And I wasn't disappointed. I must say, I had no idea Oscar Wilde even had a wife. And children. Of course, once I knew, I could only imagine a tragedy. And so it was. The life of a woman was hard enough in the middle of the 19th century but being married to one of the most prominent people at the time and being involved in such a scandal must have been an insurmountable obstacle.

Franny Moyle describes Constance's life from the beginning to the end, her youth in poverty, her ascent into society after marrying Oscar and the inevitable fall after his secret life was unveiled. How much power a woman has when it comes to the task to prevent her loved ones from disaster. Constance has shown this to us.

If you are only remotely interested in Oscar Wilde and/or women's lives before ours, this is the book for you.

From the back cover:
"In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children’s author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women’s rights. A founding member of the magical society The Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs. Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right.

But that spring Constance’s entire life was eclipsed by scandal. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. She lived in exile until her death.

Franny Moyle now tells Constance’s story with a fresh eye. Drawing on numerous unpublished letters, she brings to life the story of a woman at the heart of fin-de-siècle London and the Aesthetic movement. In a compelling and moving tale of an unlikely couple caught up in a world unsure of its moral footing, Moyle unveils the story of a woman who was the victim of one of the greatest betrayals of all time.

I also read: "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "A Woman of No Importance".

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Smucker, Barbara "Underground to Canada"

Smucker, Barbara "Underground to Canada" - 1977

Barbara Smucker is a well-known Canadian author. Why would her book be interesting for European children at this time? The novel tells the story of two slave girls who escape from a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and steal toward Canada on the Underground Railroad. The description is very clear for children of all ages, especially if they are interested in history.

From the back cover:

"Taken away from her mother by a ruthless slave trader, all Julilly has left is the dream of freedom. Every day that she spends huddled in the slave trader’s wagon travelling south or working on the brutal new plantation, she thinks about the land where it is possible to be free, a land she and her friend Liza may reach someday. So when workers from the Underground Railroad offer to help the two girls escape, they are ready. But the slave catchers and their dogs will soon be after them…"

Monday 16 April 2012

Follett, Ken "World Without End"

Follett, Ken "World Without End" - 2007

The follow-up to "The Pillars of the Earth" which I absolutely loved. This takes place 200 years after the first book, so our heroes have all passed away. But, they have descendants, so the drama can start again. The Independent warns: "You won't be able to put it down", the Daily Express promises "Medieval life at its best". Both are completely and utterly right. What a book!!!!

If you remember Jack and Tom Builder, Aliena, the Earls' daughter and her brother Richard, William, the bad guy and Prior Philip ... well, they all seem to have been resurrected. You will meet Caris and Merthyn, Gwenda and Ralph, four kids whose lives get intertwined over the years. They fight war and the plague, some together, some against each other, the novel is full of intrigues and plots, passion, love, murder, family disputes, a secret about the King, more building to be done in Kingsbridge. You can enjoy the novel on its own but it's interesting to know that a lot of the story is based on historical facts. Whereas Kingsbridge, Shiring and our heroes and their families are fictional, the background isn't. I love historical novels.

As in the first description of life in Kingsbridge, I love Ken Follett's style, his writing is gripping, he builds anticipation in a way not many authors manage to, the book is indeed unputdownable. Can't wait to see the mini-series that will be aired later this year (2012).

From the back cover:

"On the day after Halloween, in the year 1327, four children slip away from the cathedral city of Kingsbridge. They are a thief, a bully, a boy genius and a girl who wants to be a doctor. In the forest they see two men killed. As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, love, greed and revenge. They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war. One boy will travel the world but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman. One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other will pursue an impossible love. And always they will live under the long shadow of the unexplained killing they witnessed on that fateful childhood day. Ken Follett’s masterful epic The Pillars of the Earth enchanted millions of readers with its compelling drama of war, passion and family conflict set around the building of a cathedral. Now World Without End takes readers back to medieval Kingsbridge two centuries later, as the men, women and children of the city once again grapple with the devastating sweep of historical change.

See more comments on my ThrowbackThursday post in 2022. 

Saturday 14 April 2012

Mak, Geert "Jorwerd"

Mak, Geert "Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in late 20th Century" (Dutch: Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd. Een Nederlands Dorp In De Twintigste Eeuw) - 1996

The original Dutch title is (translated) "How God disappeared from Jorwerd". The story is about a small village in Friesland and the changes it underwent in the first half of the 20th century, changing from farming to a commuting place, the influence of modern technology on a people that had lived off the land for centuries. But it is not just the story of Jorwerd, overall in Europe, the countryside changed. This little place with a population of just 700 became even smaller through the "Silent Revolution". After  more industrialization and mechanization of the farming, only about half of those people still live there, and they are getting older and older.

Geert Mak lived in the village for half a year to explore all the history and the changes. One remark I will never forget, life in a village in the Netherlands was closer to life in a village in Russia than to life in a town in the Netherlands. I think this was true overall, especially when comparing this book to that of Russian authors. "Anna Karenina" comes to mind where village and town life are described very well.

A very interesting book showing us what development and improvement has done to our lives. And the title, the more the people can rely on help from outside, the less they depend on changes of weather, etc., the fewer of them go to church and the believers attending the services are getting less and less.

This book is very interesting, no matter from which country you come, it’s a great account of the lives our grandparents still lived.

Geert Mak has carried on writing about the life of ordinary people in Europe. "My father’s century" and "In Europe. Travels through the twentieth century", both are on my reading list.

I read this in the original Dutch.

From the back cover:

"Born in Friesland himself, Geert Mak has returned to his roots to explore the silent revolution that took place in the small village of Jorwerd, Friesland, after World War II. He lived in Jorwerd for six months, gathering the personal stories of Jorwerters past and present, many of whom were born, lived and died there. By interweaving their colourful stories with the wider history of Europe, Mak provides an unsentimental portrayal of the pleasures and the hardships of living in the country, while illustrating at the same time how rural life everywhere is under threat from the modern world."

Saturday 7 April 2012

Simmonds, Jeremy "Number One in Heaven"

Simmonds, Jeremy "Number One in Heaven - The heroes who died for Rock ‘n’ Roll" - 2006

Apparently, the author worked eight years to put together all the facts on all those Rock & Pop icons that have left us far too early due to an untimely death. He didn’t miss anybody, including Buddy Holly, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin going on to Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, Kirsty MacColl, to name but a few. Great description of the Great ones.

I love reference books on any subject, this is one very close to my heart and I am glad someone took the time to research all those details. So many of them, an amazing collection of stories. A MUST for every music lover.

From the back cover:

"Talks about the ultimate record of those who arrived, rocked and pegged-out over the years of fast cars, private jets, hard drugs, hot guns, reckless living, and killer riffs. This book provides entries for the industry's biggest stars - Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, Brian Jones, Jeff Buckley, Kirsty MacColl, and others."

Monday 2 April 2012

Danticat, Edwidge "Breath, Eyes, Memory"

Danticat, Edwidge "Breath, Eyes, Memory" - 1994

The world of Sophie Caco, her world starts in Haiti with her aunt Atie while her mother lives in the United States. We follow her from the age of twelve into adulthood where she has to battle with her mother's past, her mother's ghost.

This is an immensely interesting story about the life of women in any kind of culture, about the life of women in Haiti especially, the life of anybody living within a culture that prescribes what your are supposed to do according to "other people", what people are doing to defend their "honour".

A highly gripping tale, a walk between tradition and future. A highly recommendable novel.

A quote that speaks to me: "She told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head."

From the back cover:

"When her mother leaves Haiti to find work in the US, Sophie is raised by her aunt. Their parting, years later, when her mother sends for her, is as wrenching as the reunion in New York. Though she barely knows her mother they both carry secrets from their homeland that will haunt them forever."