thirty-nine.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)
James Wormold is an Englishman selling vacuum cleaners in Havana. He lives a quiet life with his 17 year old daughter after his wife left them, and he has a few friends which he sees for drinks regularly. Then one day he is contacted by one of his fellow countrymen and is persuaded to become a spy.
James says yes because he thinks the money will give his daughter, Milly, a better education and future. He is expected to get his own agents and write reports, but instead he invents them. Trouble finds him when the agency is so interested in his findings that they ship him a secretary, Beatrice, and an accountant. And then his invented agents become very real.
This was my first meeting with Mr Greene and I enjoyed it from the first sentence until the last. It is entertaining and a satirical take on the Cold War. But most of all, it is the characters that makes this book, from the devoted Catholic Milly, to the Cuban police chief who is in love with her and goes under the name the Red Vulture, and I mustn’t forget Beatrice.  In fact, I liked it so much that I started on the Honorary Consul right after.

twenty-eight.

the Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
 Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel’s originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own. “Whenever she executes them,” said Ralph, “may I be there to see!”
Isabel Archer is a young American who has been lucky to be picked by her wealthy English aunt to be her new project. Her aunt’s plan is to bring her into society and find her an English man. When her uncle dies, he leaves her most of his fortune, so Isabel suddenly becomes a rich lady who is in charge of her own destiny. She quickly turns down two marriage proposals, but the third one, to an American artist living in Italy, she says yes to. The marriage surprises both her family, friends and her former suitors because they do not like her husband, Mr Osmond.

The characters surrounding Isabel is the strength of this book. You have Ralph, Isabel’s cousin, who has a very ill health, but is enormously fond of Isabel. Henrietta Stackpole is Isabel’s American friend, who comes over to Europe to be a journalist and is very modern. Madam Merle is a woman of the world who doesn’t live anywhere, but spends her time visiting friends in all countries. Her two suitors, Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton are very decent men.

Although the book is good, it is way too long and it seemed to never end. In the first part, you get to know the characters who observe Isabel, but you never get to know Isabel herself. In the second, Isabel is finally letting us now some of her feelings and thoughts. And here you start to understand that when Isabel sets her mind to something, she follows it through, even if it’s bad for her and all her friends advise her to escape.

One thing which hit me is that all women, except Isabel, are living in very open marriages or are single. Her aunt spends only a couple of months in England with her husband, the rest is spent in Italy or travelling around. Henrietta is never going to get married, but have male companions. Countess Gemini is married, but dislikes her husband so much that she spends most of the time away from him.

Should you read it or not? Yes, if you like the good old classics and have no problems with a very slow plot and love characters. If not, I would steer clear. Unless you plan to cross of all the 1001 books you should read before you die. Then it’s not a choice.

twenty-five.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”
 Catherine is 17 when she is to follow her neighbours to Bath for a couple of weeks to be introduced into society. She quickly makes friends with the Thorpes and she adores Isabella, and along with their brothers they explore Bath and its surroundings. And although John Thorpe has an eye for Catherine, she has fallen head over heels for Henry Tilney. And she tries and succeeds to befriend his sister, Eleanor. And when she is invited to go with them back to their home, Northanger Abbey, which she believes to be like Udolpho, nothing could be more perfect.

The part where Catherine is exploring her room with the curious chests and cabinets had me laughing out loud. I love how Jane is using Ann Radcliffe’s the Mysteries of Udolpho so much, and I’m glad that I read it before this. The naivety of Catherine was something which irked, but also amused me. And  the whole conflict between the Thorpes and Tilneys over Catherine was also amusing. I didn’t like how quickly things eloped at the end, and I’m sure it would have been fascinating to follow the exact events which happened after Catherine went home again.

This was one of the first books Jane wrote, although it was published after her death. And her latter works are definitely better. For me, it was the mocking of the gothic novel and especially Udolpho which made me like it. This book was April’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge.

“The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

sixteen.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented
 Tess Durbeyfield has grown up in a poor family, but her father is told that they are ancestors of the ancient and once wealthy d’Urberville family. The family therefore sends Tess away to some distant relatives where she can work and help the family out with money. Alec d’Urberville lives in the house with his blind mother, and Tess’ job is to look after the poultry. But Alec, who is not a real d’Urberville at all, desires Tess and one night takes advantage of her.

Tess then decides to run away from Alec and she goes far away to a place no one knows her. There she finds work at a big dairy farm and falls in love with a worker with big plans, Angel Clare. But because of her past, she rejects Angel who keeps persuading her until one days she gives in and agrees to marry him. She wants to tell him her life story before the marriage, but is unable to. On the wedding night, Angel tells his wife about his past lovers, but when Tess finally tells him about Alec, he leaves her.

This was certainly a book that made me think, and grateful for that women’s rights have improved during the last century. The biggest question I am left with is; was Tess raped? She was definitely asleep at the time Alec lay down on her and kissed her. And I was really hoping that Angel would be a decent guy, but he turned out to be a man of double standards and a man of principles.

It took a month to get through the 350 pages. The first parts went easily, but after Tess ran away from Alec and got to the farm, I lost interest in the prose about the landscape and changing of the seasons and the philosophical pondering about Tess and her situation. And it dragged on forever, and then towards the very end it suddenly got really interesting again. But the end was definitely disappointing.

I have read some reviews and it seems that this is either a hit or miss, and many consider this as not the best work of Hardy. I have all his works which made it into the 1001 books you must read lists, so I guess I have to read more of him, although it’s not very tempting right now. But I do want to see how Roman Polanski turned the novel into a film.

thirty-two.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
 Anna Karenina is the unhappy wife of Karenin and the devoted mother to their son. But then she meets Count Vronsky who takes her by storm and she gives up her family and her place in society to be with him.

The extended family of Anna are also important characters in this excellent 800+ pages long Russian classic. I fell in love on the first page and the love lasted until the last page. Or maybe not entirely until the last page, because all the religious doubt was too much. 

My favourite character must be Levin, a friend of Anna’s brother and the suitor of his wife’s sister. I can’t really pinpoint why, but he seemed like a sincere character all through the book. All the other intrigues in the extended family and their friends’ lives are all so excellently explained. The only thing I was really curious about was what Dolly’s daughter had been doing with the raspberries. It must be something naughty as it wasn’t in the book! 

I’m sure there’s so much to be said about this book, but the most important thing is that I loved it so much that it will be up there amongst my favourite books. I’m also excited about the new film version which comes out later this year.

This was June’s book in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge, to see what other Norwegians say about it, go here.

eighteen.

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)
Georges Duroy wanders the streets of Paris with enough money to either for two more meals or two drinks. Luck has it that he runs into a fellow soldier from his time in the military and he doesn’t only invite him to dinner, he also offers to help him get a job as a journalist. And Georges seizes every opportunity he gets to climb in society and into bed with women – as long as they can help him, of course.
This is one of the classics that blew my mind! A man with no moral sleeping his way up to the top. Not that most of the women weren’t innocent, they had their own reasons for entertaining Bel-Ami, the name which they called him as he was truly a beau. And if it hadn’t been for the tell-tale signs like horse carriers and telegrams and the political discussions about French colonisation of North Africa, this could have been set in our time (except than it probably would have been graphic sex instead of kisses on the hands and cheeks).
It was such a quick read – was already halfway when the aeroplane landed and I just had to finish it today. The only thing that was annoying was the end, I always hoped for some better (in other words scandalous) end to Georges De Roy.
A new film version is out soon – with Robert Pattison (definitely not my kind) starring as Bel-Ami, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci as some of his lovers. This ought to be good!
I’m also glad to discover that the 1001 list includes more books by Guy de Maupassant and I hope they’re even more scandalous than this one. 

sixteen.

the Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (1831)
 Quasimodo looks more like a monster than a man. After his mother’s death he was taken in by the priest of Notre-Dame where he eventually ended up working as the bell ringer, a job which made him deaf. He spends most of his time in the tower, watching down on the streets and people of Paris. He is especially interested in a beautiful young gypsy, la Esmeralda. But his saviour, the priest Claude Frollo, is also in love with the gypsy and he orders Quasimodo to kidnap her. 
This book was a real struggle. It shifts from a very exciting story to long descriptions of architecture, philosophy and so on. Most of these parts I skimmed as I just wanted to finish the book. It is set in the late 1400s, and I wonder why. I also really dislike the way the authors used interrupt the story to address the reader with either a short summary or something off-topic.
I’m sure that I would have loved this story if it had been straight-forward. I kept looking at the progress bar wondering when the story would really get off and I think finally it did after I had read about 60%. And I remember the first 30% were especially terrible. And what worries me more, is that I never connected with the characters, none of them won me over and that’s probably one more reason why I didn’t like the book.
And I’m also disappointed because I really enjoyed les Miserables when I read that one a couple of years ago.
But at least I can finally cross out another big classic on my 1001 books challenge! If you want to read what others thought of the book, check out Line’s 1001 books challenge (in Norwegian).

six.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing… My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.

 Dr Watson moves in with a complete stranger, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is an eccentric man who calls himself a consulting detective. And because Dr Watson has nothing better to do, as he was discharged from the army, he joins Sherlock in solving mysteries. And their first crime to solve is the dead American found in an empty apartment.

 My first meeting with Sherlock Holmes was an impressive one! Sir A.C Doyle has a style of writing that really impressed me. It didn’t feel like I read a 120 year old crime novel (except for the obvious lack of modern technology and horses). I especially liked how it suddenly changed the setting from London to Salt Lake City. And although this should be about Sherlock and Watson, I think I enjoyed the Utah part more. Really interesting to read about the founding of Salt Lake City and the Mormons.

I’m already well into the Sign of Four, the second Sherlock novel!

five.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
Oliver Twist is an orphan after his mother died while giving birth and his father is unknown. He spends his childhood on a farm, then in a workhouse and then he is sent to a coffin maker as an apprentice when he is 10 because he dared to ask for more food at the workhouse. He eventually runs away to London where he finds himself amongst thieves and rogues.
Third Dickens in a little over a month and finally one that I truly enjoyed! Poor Oliver Twist got me right from the start and held me to the end (although it got boring with all the explanations). I really enjoyed the street life of London and the gang that Oliver ran into; Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Nancy. They do not treat Oliver very well, but the adults have their own reason for keeping Oliver in the gang and try to find him every time he gets away from them. He is twice taken in by good people and they believe that he is innocent and want to help him get his life in order.
Having read excerpts from the novel previously, I’m glad that I got to read the whole book or else I would just thought that the book was about Oliver living on the streets. We are currently watching the 2006 film version by Roman Polanski in class and I find it really true to the story and I love the way the characters are portrayed, they are exactly how I imagined them while reading the book. 
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and I will certainly more Dickens.

three.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
 Pip is visiting the grave of his mother on a Christmas Eve when he is 6, when he meets a runaway convict who threats him into stealing from his family. He is also a witness when the convict is arrested and he fears that the convict thinks that it is him that has told the police where to find them.
Pip lives with his sister and her husband, the blacksmith, Joe. They are very poor and his sister never says a kind word to either him or Joe. Pip is hired as a playmate to an orphan, Estella, who is adopted by a rich lady who was abandoned at the altar by her fiancé. Pip falls in love with Estella who is never kind to him.
Luck has it that Pip is taken care of by an anonymous benefactor in order to become a gentleman and he moves to London where he spends money and trying to get somewhere in life. And then he runs into the convict again.
I never really got into the story and found my thoughts to be drifting a lot while reading it, so I don’t really understand the book. Shame on me. This always seems to be happening when I read the so-called classics; maybe I don’t have the brain to devour those old books. Yet I had moments when I truly enjoyed what I read, and I loved the awkward Miss Havisham.  
(This book was the first book in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge 2012 and if you want to see what other Norwegian bloggers think about it, follow the link.)