fifty-three.

the Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so…” 

In 1923, Virginia Woolf is working on a new novel, later to be named Mrs Dalloway, while trying to pull herself together. In 1949 in Los Angeles, Mrs Brown is pregnant with her second child and it’s her husband’s birthday, but all she wants to do is lay in bed and read Mrs Dalloway. In present day New York, Clarissa, who is called Mrs Dalloway by her former lover, Richard, is holding a party for him as he’s dying from AIDS.

The book starts with the suicide of Virginia Woolf, and that really sets the mood for the rest of the book. I kept wondering whether both Clarissa and Mrs Brown would kill themselves as well. It is beautifully written, and I really like how Cunningham has included passages from Mrs Dalloway. It was a perfect read for my current mood, and it really hit home. Save it for your blue periods.

Another thing I discovered while reading this, is that I totally didn’t understand Mrs Dalloway at all. I definitely need to read it again, but it needs to mature for a couple of years first. I also need to watch the film again.

This was November’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle.

fifty-two.

the Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)
 Walter Moody, fresh off the ship in Hokitika, the booming gold town in Southern New Zealand, wanders into a gathering of 12 men. The 12 men are talking about a curious case, which they all have some information about. The curious case involves the death of one man, a suicidal whore, forgery, shipping crates and, of course, gold. All the men present have something to add to the story. They have all witnessed one thing or another, and they take turns explaining what they have seen.

I have been struggling for three days now to come up with something clever to say about this book. It is simply a brilliant old-fashioned mystery novel with plenty of intrigues. I really love the design of the book, something which is definitely lost in the Kindle edition. But I discovered the X-ray tool on Kindle while reading this, and it has plenty of information about the places mentioned in the book. It also has a feature where you can see how much a name or place is mentioned in the book. Fun for book nerds!

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize 2013 and I have yet to read the others on the short list to see if this is a worthy winner. But it is definitely a great book! 

forty-seven.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
“”How can we fight the French, Prince?” said Count Rostopchin. “Can we arm ourselves against our teachers and divinities. Look at our youths, look at our ladies! The French are our Gods: Paris is our Kingdom of Heaven.””

It is 1805 and Russia and France are about to go to war. In the Rostov household, they are concerned about three things; money, marrying off their children and war. The Bolkonskys’ estate is out on the countryside where the old Prince holds the rest of the family in a tight clutch. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of one of the richest counts in Russia, and he unexpectedly inherits the money and climbs on the social ladder. He marries one of the important ladies, Helene Kuragina, but the marriage is colder than ice.

Napoleon and his army destroy the Russians, and even the aristocracy suffers horrible losses. The war changed the lives of the noble families, and they lived through tragedies, but also had some happy moments during the war. 

War and Peace is said to one of the best novels ever written. I cannot say that I agree, although I really enjoyed the story. But the bloody philosophical essays in between, and especially in the final epilogue. That really ruined the book for me. And Tolstoy sure takes his time to get to the point, and I believe that it would have been a lot better if only he had a strict editor. If you plan to read it, I suggest you go for a good edition which has put all the essays in an appendix.

But luckily, Tolstoy’s genius shines through, and those parts which deals with family life, and especially love, are brilliant and as good as Anna Karenina. I just wish he would have kept to those subjects, as the strategies and details about warfare don’t interest me at all. I do, however, see why many men list this as their favourite book. I’m just glad that I can tell the world that I have read War and Peace. 

This was September’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge (and yes, I needed another week to finish it).

twenty-nine.

the Sisterhood by Helen Bryan (2012)
Menina Walker was the miracle in a terrible storm in a South-American country when she was found alone in a fishing vessel with a medal around her neck and an ancient book. She was adopted by American parents and had a nice upbringing. Now, at nineteen, she is going to Madrid to research a medieval artist, but bad weather and a stolen purse eventually leads her to a remote convent. Bored out of her mind, she tries to make sense of the convent’s numerous paintings and starts reading the ancient book which has always been with her. And unveils a remarkable story about the convent and its secret gospel.
The same old story, just a new setting. Which means that it is predictable and I was right in all my guesses how it would turn out. Luckily, the setting, with the Spanish Inquisition and the Sisterhood, was to my tastes, otherwise I’d give up pretty soon as the plot and language in the beginning when you get to know Menina are terrible. 
It is definitely the historical context which saves this book. I have made notes to learn more about the Spanish Inquisition, both in Spain and South-America, about the Spanish settlers in South-America and the Incas. And it irks me that there is no Wikipedia page about the book, or author, yet as I’d like to know whether the convent and the Sisterhood are based on historical facts or entirely made up.
If you like the genre, you’ll enjoy it. And I have a feeling that this will be one of the summer’s must reads for many women.    

twenty.

the Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (2013)
 “Fellow historians will be shocked, dismayed, and perhaps incredulous–I am daring to suggest that the Curse did not first manifest itself on June 4, 1905, which was the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s wedding, and generally acknowledged to be the initial public manifestation of the Curse, but rather earlier, in the late winter of the year, on the eve of Ash Wednesday in early March”.

 In the winter of 1905, Princeton was hit by strange events, deaths and people swore they saw ghosts and vampires walking around in the streets. For the prominent Slade family, the curse seems to evolve around them, and when the beautiful Annabel runs from the altar on her wedding day with another man, the scandal is complete.

The book description tricked me into buying this and reading it for Easter. Sadly, it didn’t scare me at all, yet I enjoyed reading about the happenings in Princeton. I really enjoyed all the famous persons in this book, from Woodrow Wilson to Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Although if Jack is portrayed correctly, I certainly lost a lot of respect for him. It was also interesting to read about the feminist and socialist movements and the way upper class families reacted to these trends. My favourite character was Wilhelmina Burr(?), and I was disappointed when she sort of disappeared off to art school and thus out of the story.

But I found the historian’s narrative really annoying, and confusing. And as I already said, I wish it had been more thrilling, although I really enjoyed those supernatural parts as well. Sadly I just wished I would reach the end, so I skimmed the last chapters which is probably the reason why I feel that I missed out on the whole explanation of the curse.

Joyce Carol Oates has done a great job with the setting of this book, and I simply forgot at times that this just came out and wasn’t a classic. This is the fifth book in the Gothic series, and I will definitely read the others, as well as explore more of Joyce Carol Oates’ books.

twelve.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1854)
 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,it was the season of light,it was the season of darkness,it was the spring of hope,it was the winter of despair.” 
After spending many years in the Bastille, and many years living isolated and making shoes, Mr Manette is reunited with his unknown daughter, Lucie, who has been living in London. Mr Manette who used to be a doctor is mentally ill, and Lucie tries her best to get him back on his feet again. On their way back to England, they meet a young French man, Charles Darnay, who ends up charged for high treason, but is acquitted and then falls in love with Lucie. But the little happy family is soon in danger thanks to their past and the French Revolution.

My 4th Dickens and still I struggle. I just get lost in all the words and then don’t get the action at all. I think I finally got it around halfway through. But that doesn’t mean that the book is bad or boring. I really enjoyed it despite not getting the whole story straight with all the names, spies and counter-spies. One of the main reasons for this is that it is set in the midst of the French Revolution and you get thrown right in to it. I also admired the way Ms Pross kicked arse at the end. 

fifty-eight.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (2011)
 Reverend MacKenzie and his pregnant wife, Lizzie, are about to move to the remote community of St. Kilda in 1830. The inhabitants have been described as heathen and filthy and he can’t wait to show them the right way. 
But the life on St. Kilda is tough. The harsh weather conditions and the fact that it is so remote from the rest of Scotland mean that ships rarely come. And when the ships fail to show up, the inhabitants have to live with what the nature provides and that isn’t much. Their main ingredient is sea fowl. Most newborn babies die of the 8 day sickness. Lizzie loses more than one baby and the relationship between her and her husband goes astray. But worst of all for the reverend is that the inhabitants are reluctant to believe in the words of God.
Reverend MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie did live on St. Kilda from 1830 to 1943 and Karin has done a great job fictionalising their lives. She has described the islands so well that when I discovered the map after reading the book, it looked exactly how I pictured it. It was a fascinating read and I felt that I learnt a lot about the history of St. Kilda. 
I have been fascinated by the isles after reading about it in my absolute favourite book Atlas of Remote Islands.  Sarah Moss has also written a great book about St. Kilda, Night Waking, where she mixes past and present life on the isles.

fifty-four.

the Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)
 Emily and her father set out on a journey southwards after her mother’s death. On this journey, the father dies and Emily is left in her aunt’s care. Emily’s aunt isn’t the nicest, and she dislikes Emily’s beloved, Valancourt, and takes Emily with her to Italy and eventually to the castle of Udolpho. But the new husband of the aunt is a terrible man and there is no way to escape the terrors of Udolpho.

700+ pages. In my opinion about half of them could have been skipped as they are boring observations of the scenery of France and Italy. And the real story doesn’t start until 30% in to the book. Luckily the last 30% of the book is such a wild tale that it makes it worthwhile.

I was not looking forward to reading this as it sounded too scary for my nerves and the start was promising with the mysterious happenings in the cottage. But the whole Udolpho business wasn’t as scary as I thought, but certainly entertaining. The whole fainting women thing was something I could not take seriously. I did, however, love it when the story completely changed and I think the title is very misleading. I’m glad I read it, but I won’t do it again.

This was November’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge. 

twenty-two.

the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)
The year is 1327 and Brother William of Baskerville has arrived at an abbey in Italy where he is to attend to a meeting to try to settle the dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans. But when he and his novice, Adso, get there, they are asked by the abbot to solve a murder before the meeting is to take place.
But then more murders take place and there’s a rumour among the monks that it is inspired by the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse. And William is certain that the answer is hiding somewhere in the library, but the library is like a labyrinth.
I hate that I always have the feeling that I have only understood less than half of the books Umberto Eco writes. But the story was at least easy to follow. But for me it was impossible to understand everything about the dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans and all about the heretics. I have a feeling that I would have benefited from knowing the papal history before reading this. And Latin as many Latin phrases are not translated. Some of them I understand out of the context and others I’m sure was some brilliant insults which would be nice to know.
Nevertheless, Umberto Eco is a brilliant writer. And I’m in awe of the way that he has managed to construct an abbey and placed it in the 1300s. The characters are also interesting. And there’s a lot of interesting things that happens in the monastery, and especially at night.

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).