What’s on my bookshelf

At the beginning of the summer, I made a solemn promise to myself that I would read a lot over the course of the summer. I was always a reader as a child. I liked nothing better than to curl up on the sofa and read my book under a blanket, until I was found and made to do my homework or music practice. I would always stay up well past my bedtime, reading by torchlight or moonlight so that my parents would not realise I was still awake. But somehow recently, I have got out of the habit. I wouldn’t need books to make me tired anymore, and I was quite happy to go to sleep automatically, and books just slipped away. I would usually have one on the go, but it would take me weeks to finish it, reading a chapter here and there when I found time. I used to stay up for hours and refuse to go to bed until I had finished every last word of a book. It drove my parents mad. I began to wonder where that child had gone. Over the course of study leave, I found myself with more and more time on my hands and whilst I could have used that time for studying as much as possible, I didn’t. I resolved to read.

I thought I’d share with you some of the books I’ve read over the summer and what I thought about them. Some of them were recommended by my teachers for preparation for sixth form, others I had had lying around for ages and I just needed to pick up and read.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë – I really enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights (and talked about it a bit here). I had been putting off reading it because I thought it was old and confusing and long and boring. I was wrong. My Mum had also not been helping, as she had had to study it at A level or O level or something, so only had words of loathing to offer. I actually really enjoyed it. It tells a tale that somewhere we can all relate to. Whilst I have to admit that I did at some points get confused over which generation of ‘Catherine’ I was on and learnt to just skim read the parts in, I am able to say now that it is really a deserved ‘classic.’ Beautifully poetically written, and from the viewpoints of both Lockwoood, and Nelly through direct speech, it truly felt like you could picture the life on the moors as it changed over the course of the 30ish years of the narrative, and see the lives of the characters evolve. If you are an English student, this is a must! If not, it’s thoroughly worth a read and not at all boring. Be persistant – it took me a few chapters to get into it!

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable.” – Wuthering Heights

The Red House, Mark Haddon – The first thing that I will say about this book is that it is definitely not as good as the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. His previous book was perfect, giving you a true and usually inaccessible insight into the lives of autistic children, and how they see the world. However, this was a little disappointing. It tries to be a poignant story about how a family makes bonds and forges new friendships after an argumentative past, but feels bitty, hurried and forced, dropping religious arguments and marital breakdowns here and there where it seems convenient. The point of view is constantly changing, and changing between direct speech in italics and thoughts in normal text, which makes it quite difficult to follow. If you were a fan of Curious Incident, you will be disappointed with the Red House.

A man called Ove – see here.

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier –  I have always loved books by Chevalier. They are always historically accurate, or as close to it as possible, engaging and full of twists and turns. Set in 1850, The Last Runaway follows Honor Bright, a young English Quaker, to America, where she is destined to live with her sister’s new husband. She is faced with problem after problem, and her world falls suddenly apart. Thrown alone into a new country, she feels neither welcome nor secure, and the distance from home doesn’t help. Even her faith feels different the other side of the ocean. She is quick to realise that she is not the only one alone in her new land. She sees the evidence of slave after slave trying, and often failing, to make it to a new life in Canada. Honor faces the dilemma between her morals and the law. This book is such a clear reminder of how we form our morals and ethics. In difficult situations, what is are our guiding principles? Gripping, emotionally charged and a true page turner, this book tugs at the heart of the questions we face every day. What is right and what is wrong? Who can we really trust?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an endearing book, telling the story of Fry who decides, upon hearing that his long standing friend Queenie Hennessey is terminally ill, to walk to her in Berwick-upon-Tweed, from Devon. He takes the decision suddenly, and has neither walking boots, a map, food, water, or any real idea of how he is going to achieve this inconceivable journey alone and unprepared. He lives behind his wife, who cannot understand what he is doing. But Fry knows he just has to keep walking. He has to keep walking, because he promised Hennessey that he would come, on the grounds she stayed alive awaiting his arrival. He has to keep walking, because he has to save her life. I particularly loved this, because it got to the heart of what faith really is. Faith is a belief we all have, and for Fry this is the faith to carry on, even when he feels he can no longer. It shows us that even if we don’t necessarily believe in God, we can have some sort of faith. And it is this faith which empowers us to achieve, and to be the people we are today. Even if it takes a girl at a service station, selling burgers to show us. I laughed and cried at this book – a truly wonderful book that touches on themes from religion to humanity, to mortality to consciousness, to social cohesion to unconditional care to morality to loneliness (and so much more!). Definitely a recommended book!

“But maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.”

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing it for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

-The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild – I have to say, I didn’t love this book. It tells the story of a lost Jean-Antoine Watteau painting and its new owner who finds it in a antique shop. Jumbled into this book is the true history of Jean-Antoine Watteau, the fictional history of the painting (which speaks – slightly strange), the love life and career of the protagonist Annie, her alcoholic mother Evie, and Nazi art history. The author tries to mimic the painting with its happy face and dark undertones in her writing, showing the glory of love and happiness in art, undermined by dark history and rich Russian oligarchs, socialites and people who see art simply as status symbols. It doesn’t quite work. Rothschild easily shows her own love of art, but crams in so many different storylines that the work seems predictable and so full of different ideas that it barely skims the surface of each. It seems over the top in quite a few areas and the characters are inconsistent – one has ‘tawny’ eyes at the beginning, then green eyes, then later blue eyes. It seems like this book, as a debut, was not quite there either with simplifying the concept, the depth of writing, or editing consistencies. If you like art, however, and want a quick read before bed, this will do fine.

Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Just like tomorrow) – This book is the set text for the French A2 course that I’m studying (English translation is widely available). I can see why, it embodies all the topics we study – immigration, poverty, social issues, sexuality, human rights, marital breakdowns etc. as well as toying with the ideas of our destiny, fate and hope. It is also written from a teenager’s perspective, so I suppose that is supposed to make us engage with it more. However it feels like it has been written for this sole purpose. The language (in French anyway) is a mixture between classical French, modern slang and Arabic which gives it it’s uniqueness and themes of social integration etc. The chapters are so short that it seems more like a diary than a book (4o chapters in 188 pages – yes I counted). I would perhaps recommend this to someone who wants to read about the views of France from les banlieues, or to a young teenager. I can see how pivotal it is in French literature, as it is a voice of truth from a hidden population. However, if I had the choice, I doubt I would have picked this up – the vocabulary, although mixed, is simplistic and the plot line is not gripping. There is so much brilliant classic French literature out there, it is a shame that A level pupils do not access this instead of more modern and more poorly written books such as Kiffe Kiffe Demain.

All the light we cannot see, Anthony Doerr – This book intricately traces the lives of two young adults, living through World War II. The book is primarily set in France, although flashbacks reveal something of what it was like to live in Germany before the war too. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl, who has relied on her Father since the age of 6. He, a security guard at the local museum, and a keen craftsman builds her a perfect miniature of the town, so that slowly she begins to gain independence, tracing her fingers over the streets of the miniature, which solidifies them in her mind. But what Marie-Laure does not know is what the miniature hides inside. Werner is a radio technician, destined for greater things in the Nazi forces, for his skills with his equipment. He leaves his lowly life as an orphan destined for the coal mines behind. Both Werner and Marie-Laure hide secrets. Can they each help to win the war for all those opposing the Nazis? Innocent, frightened, and alone, both have to find a way to carry on. This book is good, but does not feel as historically grounded as other historical fiction, like, for example, Chevalier. I feel like it tries to touch concepts and events that were occurring, but falls a little short. However, it is captivating, offering an imaginative perspective on blindness, and combining youthful innocence with the tragedy of warfare.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson – This was one of the funniest books I have read for a while. It is written incredibly informally, with the result that you can hear Bill Bryson speaking to you directly. It speaks the truth that so many of us Britons refuse to hear, and I saw my own small island from new eyes. Covering everything from Bognor Regis to the UK citizenship test, Bryson shows what is best and. ultimately, everything that is the worst about Britain. I would thoroughly recommend ‘reading’ this as an audiobook. When we went on our trip up North two weekends ago, we put this on for the boys, who had not read it yet. I laughed more than I did previously, and I had read it before. Written as a 20 year reprisal on ‘Notes from a Small Island,’ this book was undeniably great, although I would say that it is probably best for British citizens, anyone else might think that Bryson lies. I assure you he does not and is more than able to bring out the ironic and the humorous about our country. The Road to Little Dribbling can either be read all in one go, or dipped into when you fancy for a little light entertainment. Either way, I assure you, it’ll be worth your while.

The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan – This is a must read for anyone thinking about, or studying History. It covers the essence of what History really is, and how we use it, for better or for worse. It combines it’s subjects with clear examples of situations in which circumstances have been seen, spanning many decades. One thing I would say is that Margaret MacMillan is a Canadian author, and whilst some I have nothing against Canadians (!) it does mean she uses some examples that may be more well known to Canadians, and writes from a Canadian point of view e.g. ‘we’ when talking about Canada. I had to keep reminding myself of this. However, I feel it has really put whatever ‘History’ is into perspective for me, opened up some thoughts on how we use evidence, and reignited my desire to study it at A level. It is a book that says what is does on the tin, and I for one am a great fan of those.

The Dust that Falls from Dreams, Louis de Bernières – Out of all the books I have read this holiday, this has to be my one favourite. It tells the story of several families, the McCosh family, the Pendennis family, and the Pitt family, who once used to be neighbours, through the highs and lows of the First World War. At some points it seems that nothing was going right for the families, at other times the story was joyful, but always shadowed with the knowledge that a bitter and brutal war was going on around them. It was reminiscent of the TV series ‘Downton Abbey,’ but far far better. Combining profound loss, with glimmers of hope, as a reader, I truly felt the joy and the pain that all the characters were going through. Sprinkled with a perfect touch of humour and stirred with the good old British values of the Victorian/Edwardian age, this was the perfect recipe for a book. This book was immersive and powerfully moving. At first, I was a little daunted to see that it had 107 chapters, but I finished it in 2 nights. This book showed me what it was to love reading again, and for that I am exceptionally grateful.

“Pour les bonnes choses sur la table, pour les belles choses dans ma vie, pour l’amour, la paix, la poesié, Dieu soit béni.” -A Pitt Grace, The Dust that Falls from Dreams

I have rather indulged myself, and refrained from reading too many schooly books. But now it’s nearing the holiday and I am faced with a whole stack of books that I had intended to read over the holiday and ‘forgot’ about. Here is what the next month of reading looks like:

  • The French Revolution, Georges Lefebvre
  • Books 1-4 The Aenied, Virgil
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Du rêve pour les oufs, FaÏza Guène
  • The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris
  • Confronting the Classics/SPQR, Mary Beard
  • A little History of the World, Gombrich
  • An Epic History of Greece and Rome, Robin Lane Fox
  • The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
  • L’école des femmes, Molière
  • Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  • Illiad, Homer
  • Les contes, Maupassant
  • Voltaire, Baudelaire and Rimbaud
  • God’s fury, England’s fire, Michael Braddick
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Bernières
  • Curious, Rebecca Front
  • My Grandmother told me to tell you she’s sorry, Frederik Backman
  • Dictator, Robert Harris
  • Hitman Anders, Jonas Jonasson
  • Aeneid (1-4), Virgil
  • Ancient Greece in the footsteps of Odysseus, Harry Mount

And probably many more that I’ve forgotten about… So I’m off to read because I’ve got a lot to get through!

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