classics

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

Living in a big old house surrounded by a beautiful garden in the countryside outside Athens are Maria, the oldest sister, as sexually bold as she is eager to settle down and have a family of her own; beautiful but distant Infanta; and dreamy and rebellious Katerina. Over three summers, the girls share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to figure out their parents and other members of the tribe of adults, and worry about and wonder who they are.

The majority of Three Summers is told from Katerina’s perspective and in the first person. Though there are the odd chapters from other characters perspectives, mainly the other two sisters, and those are written in the third person so it’s easy to tell when you’re momentarily stepping away from Katerina’s viewpoint.

Three Summers is set in the 1930s before the Second World War and the sisters do all seem to live an idyllic life. At the start of the novel, so during the first summer, they are twenty, eighteen and sixteen. They spend their time lying in the fields, talking to one another about their thoughts and dreams, and also generally getting the attention of the young me they know. They also think about their separated parents and other family dramas. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather while their father, who is both a banker and an inventor, lives in Athens.

I found Three Summers quite slow going. At times that suited the story as it evokes the feeling of lazy summer days where the days blur into one, but on the other hand it made it more difficult to connect with the characters and on the whole I didn’t really care about them.

Maria was the sister that was the easiest to understand, she knows what she wants and decides who and when she’s going to marry quickly. Infanta is more reserved and at some points I wondered if she was written to be asexual or aromantic because of how distant she was towards the young man who clearly likes her. It could have been natural shyness or nerves but some of her reactions to strong emotions sometimes seemed more extreme for that. Katerina is more bold than her sisters and her curiosity and actions often made her mother despair. She doesn’t seem to fit in this family and while she does say she falls in love with a neighbour, it’s hard to tell if she really has and she’s not using him as a gateway to adventure.

The writing in Three Summers is quite flowery and paints vivid pictures of the old house and the surrounding countryside, but that sort of thing isn’t really for me and it wasn’t keeping my attention by the end of book. Maybe it’s because I did find myself skim reading the last section of the book, which was about the events of the third summer, but I did find it difficult to keep track of some of the friends and neighbours, how they were connected to the sisters and what they thought of them.

Because it’s set just across three summers and is more of a slice of life type story, there are some things that are open ended and potential relationships not yet pursued which is a little frustrating but that’s the nature of this kind of story. Three Summers is a coming of age story and it’s one that fans of period dramas may like a lot. It has the will they/won’t they relationships but with more of a stiff upper lip as young women weren’t allowed to be forthright with their wants in the 1930s.

READ THE WORLD – Uruguay: The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

Translated by Kit Maude.

The novella follows Rebeca Linke and her attempt to live her life how she wishes and free herself from a hostile society.

The Naked Woman was first published in Uruguay in 1950 and I can see why it caused a stir then. It depicts female nudity and empowerment, and the violent reaction a whole town has towards that. The Naked Woman is one of those books that I wish I’d read at university, or as part of a book club, because it’s a story that would be great to discuss with others as there’s so many interesting themes and moments in it. There’s fantastical elements and dream like sequences, making it difficult to puzzle out what’s real and what’s in Rebeca’s mind, especially at the beginning. In part, because it’s hard to believe why a woman would wander naked in the woods and fields and be so without her inhibitions.

The Naked Woman is a short but powerful story. It shows the fragility and viciousness of the male ego and how it can corrupt the society they’re a part of. The men of the town have a violent and almost primitive reaction to Rebeca’s nudity. It’s horrifying as so many of them, both young and old, become obsessed with the idea of her and disgusted by her. It’s as if they feel Rebeca has the audacity to wander the fields naked and in doing so, she is being sinful, and when they look upon her, they are too, and they can’t cope with that.

The Naked Woman presents a lot of ideas about feminism, sex, religion, and power. It doesn’t really give any answers to all these themes or solid explanations for Rebeca and other characters actions, which is as intriguing as it is frustrating. This is another reason I think it’d be a great book to discuss with others.

The writing in The Naked Woman is evocative and often fantastical. The Naked Woman reminded me a bit of the few books I’ve read by Angela Carter, so if you’ve read and liked Carter, then you should try Somers work. The Naked Woman is a really interesting story and it’s one that will stick with me for a while, even if I’d have liked more answers. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Seventh Seal (1957)

As the Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return home from the crusades, they find their country in the grip of the Black Death. As the Knight seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in order to prolong his time on Earth.

The Seventh Seal is a classic film that opens with the iconic imagery of a man, sat across from Death, playing chess on a beach. It’s an image that’s been replicated in media over the years, and it was the only thing I knew about this film before watching it.

The Seventh Seal is about more than a chess match though. As Antonius and Jöns travel across the country to Antonius’s home, they meet different characters along the way that join them in their journey in the hope to avoid the plague. There’s Jof (Mils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), two performers who with their young son are looking to earn money and keep safe. Jof and Mia symbolise the goodness that Antonius is looking for proof of.

The image of Death is so unsettling in The Seventh Seal not only because of the black cloak that covers Death from head to toe, but because of Ekerot’s performance. It’s so measured as he verbally spars with Antonius who tries to bargain for more time. It’s also how Death appears when you least expect it, in a shadowy corner unseen by everyone but Antonius. There becomes a sense of foreboding as you realise that moments of light-heartedness Antonius as with Jof and Mia cannot last long with the presence of Death looming over him.

There are moments of humour in The Seventh Seal, most of which comes from Jöns. He has seen a lot and is equal parts cruel and thoughtful, his wry commentary on the romantic escapades some of the people he meets goes through are funny. However, that humour does stand out when everything around Jöns is so bleak with the plague, witches being burned, and Death around the corner.

The Seventh Seal is weird and haunting. The score, scenery and imagery are unsettling, but it all comes together to be almost beautiful. I’m not sure I’ll watch The Seventh Seal again, but I’m glad I have seen it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dune by Frank Herbert

“Spice” is the most valuable yet rarest element in the universe, it’s a drug that can be used in many different ways, and it can only be found on the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis. When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens plot to take back the planet, putting Duke Leto and his family in danger. Duke Leto’s fourteen year old son Paul and his mother Lady Jessica, escape into the desert there they meet the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, and fight to survive and take back what has been taken from them.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton, Simon Vance, Ilyana Kadushin. It was a pretty good audiobook though some of the characters voices weren’t always consistent through the story so it was sometimes a little jarring at times. I definitely don’t think I would’ve read the physical book (as it’s so large and intimidating) so listening to it on audio made it more accessible for me.

Dune is about so many things, politics, religion, family, technology, and all these things are so well-developed that you end up with a vivid world this space society takes place in. that’s not to say it can’t be a bit confusing or overwhelming at times, it definitely can, but it does pose some interesting multi-layered ideas about politics and religion and how they interact.

This interstellar society that’s formed of many important families who control individual planets, though you only really follow the Harkonnens and the Atreides, is fascinating in a way as it’s full of weird contradictions. They have technology like force fields, but they fight with swords and daggers. They have space travel but they also have a belief in magic. It’s an odd combination that makes Dune seem like a historical story sent in a science-fiction world – especially with all the political backstabbing and the royal titles.

The descriptions of the planet Arrakis, its people and its creatures (there’s humongous worms with many teeth that roam the sand dunes looking for food) makes this hostile planet Paul and his mother find themselves stranded on a truly unsettling and dangerous place.

Paul is a compelling character. He’s had a lot of training in various forms of combat and politics, plus his mother has taught him the ways of persuasion and other skills that seem like magic to many people. He’s smart and capable for a teenager, but he’s pushed to the limit when his life, and the lives of everyone he knows, is threatened. I really liked his relationship with his mother Jessica. Their relationship was constantly shifting, sometimes they were like mother and son, other times they were like equals, and then at other times Paul seemed the more mature and self-assured as he seemed to be able to see possible futures.

Throughout the book there’s little experts of books from within the universe this story is set. As the story progresses, I came to realise these exerts were theoretically written after the events that Paul and Jessica were involved in. As they were often a history of Arrakis and its people, they gave you a hint as to whether or not Paul would succeed in his aims and what would become of the characters you’re already following.

I’m pleased I’ve read Dune, though it did end somewhat suddenly. A couple of the main plots were completed but there’s still a lot more to explore with this intergalactic political system. I didn’t know before going into Dune that there’s a number of sequels. I don’t think I’ll be reading them though as while I liked the story as I was reading it, I didn’t love the characters and I’m not desperate to know what happens to them next. 3/5.

REVIEW: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The year is 1984, Great Britain has become a part of superstate Oceania which is ruled by The Party who employs the Thought Police to stop people being individual and thinking or acting any different to what the Party says. Winston Smith works for the department of Ministry of Truth, he’s an outwardly diligent worker and believer in the Party but really he secretly hates the Party and reams of rebelling.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Andrew Wincott, it was an engaging and well narrated audiobook.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a scary place. It’s a dystopian world where Big Brother is always watching, the Party have full control and anyone who even thinks something that’s not in line with the Party message is wiped from existence. One of the most frightening things was how from such a young age, children are almost brain washed to be perfect citizens. They learn to tell the authorities about anyone who is not being the perfect citizens, even their own parents. No one can trust anyone, and because there’s so much surveillance and the Thought Police can appear to know what you’re thinking, it’s like you can’t even trust yourself.

The another thing that’s unsettling and scary is how quickly people can apparently change and become used to a totalitarian society. Winston was a child when things began to change, and he meets older people that vaguely remember how life was, but have little desire to make a fuss and to try and change things. That’s in part because it seems so hopeless because the Party is so far reaching and powerful.

I felt myself not really paying attention at times when Winston and Julia are reading a book about how the Party gets and maintains power. It was interesting, but it was a lot of exposition to take in at once and there was so much of it that I often had forgotten what the characters were doing before all this information appeared.

It’s interesting to finally see the origin of so many popular culture references in their original context. It gives the Big Brother reality show that’s been a part of British TV for almost 20 years a more sinister tone. As does the British comedy show Room 101 where celebrities are invited to discuss the things they hate and try and persuade the host to send those hates to oblivion aka Room 101 – it’s slightly more sinister now I know that Room 101 was a torture room.

I’m happy I’ve finally read Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s an unsettling social commentary and an engaging read. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Murders in the Rue Morgue And Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

A collection of three short stories, two of them are The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its sequel The Mystery of Marie Rogêt which are creepy and gruesome mysteries. The third is The Purloined Letter which is mystery about a seemingly simple case.

I had an interesting time with this short story collection. It was the first time I’d read any Edgar Allan Poe and I flew through, and really enjoyed, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but I found the other two stories a real drag.

All three stories are told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. His friend Dupin is an amateur sleuth so when there’s a crime, he narrates how Dupin gets involved and how he might solve the case. Dupin’s explanations of what happened is where the stories lost me. They’re really long and in depth, with page long paragraphs that I found myself getting lost in as his explanations didn’t intrigue me. They seemed like a way to show off how clever Dupin was but there was never enough to make me like the guy.

The events of The Murders in the Rue Morgue are horrifying and there are a lot of vivid descriptions on the crime scene. Those sequences, in all the stories, are the most compelling. It’s the explanations that ended up boring me instead of making me interested in finding out whodunnit.

These short stories reminded me of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and E.W. Hornung. The style of writing and story-telling is quiet something but unlike Sherlock Holmes or A.J. Raffles, Dupin isn’t a charismatic protagonist that I almost instantly took a liking to.

I’m not sure if this was a good introduction to Poe but at least I can now say I’ve read The Murders in the Rue Morgue. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Set in France during the 1620s, young d’Artagnan looks to join the King’s Musketeers where he meets Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Soon the four of them become firm friends and they have adventures across the country as there’s many plots afoot.

Every August Rincey from Rincey Reads on YouTube hosts a month long readalong of a large and maybe intimidating classic. This year it was The Three Musketeers, a book that’s been on my shelves for at least ten years, so this readalong gave me the push to finally read it.

I’ve seen a lot of different adaptations of The Three Musketeers, I saw some of the episodes of the relatively recent BBC series and I’ve seen a whole host of the various films that have been made over the decades. So, going into The Three Musketeers, I could remember bits about the characters, their relationships, and the story but it was really interesting to learn more about them and get the whole story.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Tristam Summers and it was a great audiobook that sucked me in and I’d definitely recommend it as it made the story fly by and wasn’t as intimidating as the physical book might’ve been.

The main plot of The Three Musketeers takes a while to reveal itself, instead focussing on introducing all the characters and their loyalties. I was surprised how much of the focus of the story was on d’Artagnan, especially the first third. He was definitely the main character rather than the titular three musketeers themselves. Athos is the musketeer with the most backstory, I personally found Aramis kind of snarky and frequently hilarious (he’s my favourite musketeer) but he and especially Porthos were left in the background for the majority of the book.

Once everyone’s been introduced the story moves along at great speed. There’s political intrigue with some people supporting the King, or more specifically the Queen, while others stand by the Cardinal who has he’s own goals. He’s a shady character who seems to have eyes and ears everywhere so when d’Artagnan and the musketeers have a mission, they have to very careful as to who they trust.

The female characters aren’t treated particularly well which is a shame and is potentially a sign of the time it was written. Milady de Winter is a fantastic character though and I would read a spinoff or a prequel about her. She’s a spy and an assassin who uses men’s idea of her, that she can be nothing more than a weak, delicate woman, in order to complete her mission and in some cases get away with murder. She’s brilliant and her interactions with both d’Artagnan and Athos were always interesting.

I loved The Three Musketeers. It is a proper action-adventure with some political intrigue and romance sprinkled through it as well. The characters, especially d’Artagnan, ends up in a completely different place compared to where they started, and I could never have predicted where the story goes even though I’ve seen various film adaptations. The Three Musketeers is just a lot of fun. 5/5.

REVIEW: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is a saga with the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which is about an inheritance dispute, at its centre. There are many characters and subplots in Bleak House, but the heroine of the story is Esther Summerson, a young woman who is taken under guardianship of John Jarndyce, and who’s connections become a focal point of the story.

Bleak House has two narrators, Esther Summerson and an unnamed omniscient narrator. To begin with, their stories seem to run parallel to each other and there’s not much that connects the two of them but as the story progresses the narratives merge and characters from both perspectives interact with one another.

I think listening to the audiobook is what got me through Bleak House, if I’d been reading the physical book I would’ve given up on it. The audiobook of Bleak House I listened to was narrated by Hugh Dickson and I think he did a fantastic job at making each of the many many characters sound different and, more often than not, memorable. This made the story and its many sub-plots and characters easier to follow. Also, I think the more humorous moments or dialogue were easier to understand when listening to it, compared to reading it, because the language was easier to comprehend

Bleak House is a dense story with is subplots and characters, but it also has an interesting mystery and is sometimes funny too. There’s so much going on in Bleak House it’s hard to give a summary of it or go into all the characters – I will talk a bit about Esther Summerson though. Esther grew up unloved, so she is very self-deprecating and grateful for every little thing. Even though she grew up in an unloving home, she’s someone with a big heart and a lot of love to give. Her relationship with Ada, another of John Jarndyce’s wards, is lovely as they support one another and quickly form a solid connection.

I’m happy I’ve finally read Bleak House, it’s been sitting on my shelf for nearly five years, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It’s a story with a legal battle, with romance, with family drama and it’s a detective story too. It’s so many things and it’s a commentary on the poor in London and the tough and potentially hopeless situations they are in. 3/5.

REVIEW: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

pride and prejudicePride and Prejudice follows the Bennett family as five sister’s struggle with love and their place in society. Sparks fly when Elizabeth Bennett, the second oldest daughter, meets the proud Mr Darcy, their personalities and values clash but will they come to understanding?

Pride and Prejudice is one of the many classics I’d never read before and I knew very little about the story going into it. It wasn’t a classic I read at school and I have never actually watched any of the TV or film adaptations so all I knew was the general popular culture awareness of it.

I was surprised how easy Pride and Prejudice is to read, I’m sure like many people do I think that classics are going to be stuffy and boring and full of old-style language so they’re tough books to read but that wasn’t the case with Pride and Prejudice. It’s fast-paced, fun and easy to read. Many chapters were pretty much entirely dialogue, which automatically makes it easier to read and the way that Elizabeth often ends up in a verbal battle with someone made it fun and compelling.

Elizabeth is a great heroine. She loves her older sister Jane completely and will do anything to make her happy but that won’t stop her speaking her mind or standing up for what she thinks is right. Every time she clashes with Mr Darcy it’s great to see as they are both smart and quick witted but their personalities clash so it’s hard for them to understand each other to begin with. Also I was greatly misled by the general opinion of Mr Darcy. He isn’t that charming, in fact he’s a bit of an awkward loser who can’t express his feelings very well and thinks that Elizabeth’s family is poor and embarrassing. His attitude is sometimes laughable and his and Elizabeth’s relationship is great to watch unfold.

The way the whole Bennett family is fleshed out is to be admired. All their mother wants is for her daughters to be married to well-respected and wealthy men and her attitude about it is sometimes very funny as she does overreact a bit. Jane is said to be the most pleasant and attractive of the sisters and she is fond of their new neighbour Mr Bingley but there relationship doesn’t always go to plan. The youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia are flirty and love hanging around with the military personnel posted at the nearby village. Mr Bennett is a kind and understanding father though sometimes he thinks his wife’s overexcited-ness about marriages is a bit silly. The only daughter you don’t see much about is the middle child Mary, she’s very bookish and doesn’t really care for parties like the rest of her family does.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Pride and Prejudice, it’s a great feminist book (Elizabeth is definitely a girl ahead of her time with her attitude towards men and marriage) with funny and touching moments. It’s definitely an accessible classic that’s worth a read. 4/5.

REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

51rrtmQtqkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Scout and Jem who are forced to grow up when their father Atticus Finch defends a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of To Kill a Mockingbird when I started it. It is a classic that I never read in school but had a vague knowledge of it due to popular culture and also nine times out of ten when you read a YA book where the characters have a literature class, they’re studying To Kill a Mockingbird.

The story is quite slow and I couldn’t figure out where it was going sometimes. A lot of what happens is quite mundane, everyday stuff of two children growing up – having fun in the summer, going to school, making friends and watching the neighbours. It’s not till about half way through the book you see the threads being pulled together and the case Atticus Finch is taking. (more…)