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(credits: Edmund de Waal)

I finished this book the same way I finished In Cold Blood: thinking I had never read another non-fiction quite like it. You can read it as a family saga or an insightful look at the European history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. It can also be seen as a personal journey into the world of family heritage and how that influences who you are.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke and decides to discover more about how they came down the Ephrussi family line. (He’s now writing a history of the color white – looking forward to it!)

The book is mainly divided into three sections that mark the different stages of the netsuke’s life: the first is set at fin de siècle Paris where a Japanism-obsessed Charles Ephrussi first buys them from an art dealer. The second takes us to early 20th-century Vienna, at the time of its annexation by Hitler, and finally to post-WW2 and bombed-out Tokyo, a place I knew almost nothing about.

I was afraid that amidst all the family history the netsuke would become irrelevant, but they’re cleverly woven into the story. They become a sort of vessel that embodies the zeitgeist of the different times. In Paris they’re a collectors item and objects of art, in Vienna they’re on display in an intimate recess of a golden house, where a Lady dressed to go to parties and meet lovers, but they also become toys to the children allowed to witness that ritual. In Tokyo they are once again in the world they were build for and become a symbol of family history and resilience. I wonder what the future will bring to these intriguing objects.

(favorite Paris anecdote: Monet’s asparagus)

I found de Wall a remarkable writer, one that’s able to bring an artist’s awareness to another format, paying careful attention to the language, its pace and its evocative potential. He often tackles abstract topics, but always in a very accessible way:

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous (a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t.

One of the great strengths of The Hare with the Amber Eyes is that it doesn’t ignore the excesses of the nouveaux-riches. It doesn’t downplay the extent of their wealth and privilege, nor the self-indulgence of their way of life. I couldn’t help but make parallels to the current social movements against the 1% and the financial sector in general. The 99% of that time were angry and laid open the way for Hitler and his comforting blame game. But although I believe most readers thought  “this is too much” at some point in the book (a jeweled turtle – are you kidding me?!), we were never allowed to share the “they got it coming” philosophy.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them “Israel” for the men, “Sara” for the women.

I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.

*goose-bumps* It reminded me of the time I crumbled watching Alan Cumming’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

For a book that goes so deeply into family history, I learned a lot about history in general. The gradual infiltration of Nazi ideals in Austrian society was especially interesting. It coincided with some of the book’s most moving scenes: de Waal’s grandfather isolated in his country estate, penniless and without a nationality, the courage of his grandmother in entering the country to rescue him, and the story of Anna, the faithful servant. Her part in the netsuke’s history is the stuff of legend.

Anna gave me lots of food for thought. What made her stay and rescue the netsuke? Loyalty? Her own personal form of rebellion? And then, shockingly, the family didn’t even remembered her last name. There is no excuse for this, although I also saw her as someone self-effacing and easily over-looked. How else could she have lived all those years in the occupied house?

There is such pedigree in the Ephrussi family, they were all so amazing and influential (Charles has a cameo in Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and was the inspiration for one of main characters in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) that I can’t help but keenly feel just how utterly obscure my ancestors are. More than that, I feel sorry there’s almost no family history or objects that have trickled down to my brother and me.

By the end of the book de Waal is in possession of the netsuke. Apart from frail letters and documents, they’re all that’s left of a great family that once had everything. The netsuke are once again ready to begin yet another chapter in their amazing history.

***

Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, Reading Matters, things mean a lot, Tales from the Reading Room, chasing bawa, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Boston Bibliophile, Winstonsdad’s Blog, My Book Year, Vulpis Libris, Novel Insights, Canadian Bookworm, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Page 247, Desperate Reader, MarysLibrary, Cornflower Books, Eve’s Alexandria (yours?)

Nothing like a good “state of the nation” story, mixed with contemporary satire, to get a bookclub going. It was difficult to know what to discuss because Faulks didn’t shy away from any modern-day issues. He ticked all the boxes with A Week in December: terrorism, immigration, financial crisis, drugs, the super-rich, virtual life, reality TV, cyber porn, religious ideology and even ridiculous book awards:

The Pizza Palace Book of the Year prize, somewhat controversially, was awarded to either a children’s story, a travel book, or a biography. Excluding all fiction was a bold thing to do, but it was felt that novelists already had enough prizes of their own.

It might seem a lot to put in 400-page, but I think Faulks pulled it off, probably because of the narrative structure he used. The book follows the lives of several Londoners during the same 7 days. Some of them are clearly connected (father & son, lawyer & client), but you must pay attention not to miss more subtle points of contact.

This setting alone made me like the story, since I’m a sucker for books about random connections between people and their influence on each other’s lives (Let the Great World Spin, Cloud Atlas).

The characters were very different from each other: a book-lover tube driver, who by night lives in a virtual game similar to Second Life; an Pakistani “chutney magnate” who’ll meet the Queen and worries about what they’ll talk about, so hires someone to give him and English-Lit crash-course; a young Muslim in search of identity who experiments with socialism, a local group of thugs and ends up being persuaded to take part in an act of terrorism by religious extremists; a Premier League Polish footballer, etc.

I found them all believable, even if they represented “types”. They all added something to the story and the overall picture of the variety of a 21st-century metropolis.

The character that gets more print space is Vance, the ruthless hedge-fund manager. Some of his chapters were difficult to follow because Faulks includes explanations of how certain financial products work and the reasons behind the financial crisis. Parts were hard to grasp for a non-experts like myself, but it was still a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world that has such a wide impact. I’m still left with many questions about the mechanics of hedge-funds and toxic assets, but Faulks did a great job in making reads “get a feeling” for the scope of what is going on, the complexity, the manipulation, the irresponsibility, but also the powerlessness of those of us not in the game.

There are some hard topics in A Week in December, so I was surprised that it also made me laugh, all thanks to my favorite character: Ralph Tranter, or, RT. He alone would make this novel worth while. RT’s a failed novelist who writes contemptuous book reviews of anything remotely contemporary, with a mix of snobbery and envy (“poor man’s Somerset Maugham“, “the man who put the ‘anal’ into ‘banality’“). He’s also the expert the chutney magnate hired to prepare him for meeting the Queen and the moderator of Vance’s wife bookclub.

He reads reviews by other authors “with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices”. He writes “serious” reviews for known publications, and anonymous nasty ones for a satirical magazine.

His own specialty was the facetious, come-off-it review which invited the reader to share his opinion that the writer’s career had been a sustained con trick at the expense of the gullible book-buyer.

(I would not like to be a professional critic reviewing A Week in December…)

I really enjoyed the book, but feel that Londoners would take even more out of it. They’d probably recognize the real people Faulks used as an inspiration – I’m sure they exist. For those who’ve read it: what’s with the bicycle rider with no lights who keeps nearly knocking people over? Is it a private British joke I didn’t get?

***

Other thoughts: Lucybird’s Book Blog, Book Chase, Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea, Izzy Reads, A Book and Biscuit (yours?)

(The Brontës & Axel the Cat, our temporary guest. Photo by Andre)

As I’ve mentioned in the first part, I don’t usually write multiple posts about a single book outside read-alongs. However, there’s just too much to explore in Juliet Barker’s The Brontës. It’s an amazing portrait of the family, and has deservingly become known as the biography for all of them. It’s the perfect choice for a brave bookclub like mine, who agreed to tackle this 900+ page mammoth.

The second half of the book starts right after Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels and begins her lessons with Monsieur Heger. Strangely enough, it’s not Charlotte’s falling desperately in love that’s the most interesting part of this period, but understanding the influence he had on her writing. He gave her focus and drive, and he encouraged her to write about what she knew. Charlotte’s journey from the enchanted world of Gondal to the almost autobiographical Jane Eyre is remarkably similar to the one made by two fictional characters with similar literary aspirations: Little Women’s Jo and Anne of Green Gables.

Emily on the other hand, didn’t let go of her juvenilia and seemed immune to Heger’s teachings:

Having spent most of her life at home, Emily had always been the one most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world. There was no perceivable break between her Gondal writing and her novel; indeed it seems likely that she went straight from writing her long Gondal poem “The Prisoner”, to Wuthering Heights.

It’s also in this second half of the book that we get to see that the beginnings of some of the most famous novels in the English language. Fascinating stuff!

Something I didn’t know: Emily might have written a second book. Barker has very good arguments to support this as well as the theory that it was destroyed by Charlotte, to prevent another “coarse” novel to be published and further harm her sister’s reputation. As is normal with Brontë-related non-fiction, Charlotte takes center stage due to the amount material biographers have to work with. After the portrait of sainthood painted by Mrs. Gaskell in her version, it’s truly illuminating to finally see Charlotte in 3D, with all her weaknesses and inconsistencies. I’m not sure we would get along if we ever met, I’m afraid. I’m too outraged at the way she handled her sisters’ (especially Anne’s) work after their deaths. Her defense of their themes and writing style (they dared to actually using the word “damn”, instead of “d–“!) wasn’t very brave or true to their nature. She presented them as secluded virgins with an overwrought imagination who didn’t know what they were doing instead of, for instance, argumentation in favor of Anne’s moral and religious motivations for writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (can you tell I’m an Anne fan?). I also was shocked at how Charlotte heavily re-wrote  edited their poems, sometimes completely changing the original meaning.

I know Charlotte is considered ground-breaking in her writing, especially in Jane Eyre, but after reading most of the Brontë novels (only missing The Professor and Shirley), she strikes me as the most conventional of the three, the one who risked less. Even on the issue of governesses, Agnes Grey was much stronger in its realism and brutality.

This [women’s rights to work] was a subject to which Charlotte would return again and again, it being one of obvious  relevance to her own situation. One cannot  escape the conclusion that her intellectual engagement with the subject arose purely and simply as a  result of her own unhappiness. if she had been financially independent, “the condition of women”, would not have mattered to her.

But to give her credit, she did show great spirit at time, like her head-to-head with the great William Makepeace Thackeray, who she idolized but never the less receive a piece of her mind when he deserved it.

Barker’s description of the dramatic moments of the family’s deaths were the first time a non-fiction book made me cry. Anne’s death in particular was hard to read because we not only have Charlotte’s description, but also that of Ellen Nussey, an intimate family friend.

It was Ellen, together with Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte’s friend and publisher George Smith, that made my blood boil in the book’s last chapters. Barker does a wonderful job of piecing together the creation of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which became the beginning of what Lucasta Miller described as “the Brontë myth”. The three of them did Charlotte a great injustice, not only with the border-line-illegal ways used to gather materials, but especially in the portrayal her family, which would be the accepted version for centuries to come: “poor Charlotte”; not-of-this-world Emily; Branwell, the black-sheep; Patrick, the distant and harsh father; Arthur the domineering husband.

Also, next time someone argues that the media’s exploitation of the personal life of celebrities is a modern phenomenon, I’ll have to gently disagree, after reading about what happened after Charlotte’s death.

Barker has clearly set out to de-bunk most of the Brontë myths and has done a great job of it. It’s almost an historical moment to see their true characters finally starting to surface, after all this time.

I feel I’ve been neglecting the blog 😦 I read at my usual pace and I also go on commenting on other people’s blogs, but I now have a five-book backlog, which never happened before. I think the blog fills an important gap when at work I’m not being challenged enough intellectually and creatively. It keeps my sanity and energy levels up, but it also means I tend to neglect it when things in “real life” are going really well, as it’s happening now with my new job.

Still, I’ll try to be better at it while at the same time ensuring it doesn’t become a chore.

Anywhooo, back to the review. The Hand that First Held Mine was my bookclub’s February choice. The general (me included) feeling was that we weren’t completely in love with it, but really like it all the same. After the wine started flowing we had good laughs over certain holes in the plot, and  became particularly nasty about the idea of someone just “leaping” into a taxi with armfuls of paintings, one of them a Pollock…

The book follows two story lines: in the 50s, 21-year-old Lexie meets a mystery man who changes her life forever. He’s the editor of an art magazine and because of a note he writes to her, Lexie moves to London and finally takes the plunge into the exciting life she always wanted to have.

She is here, she’s in London: any minute now the technicolor part of her life will commence, she is sure, she is certain — it has to.

About 50 years later, we meet Elina, a painter who nearly dies giving birth to her baby boy. This event has a great impact in her physical and mental health, but just as her life is coming back to normal, her boyfriend Ted starts having intriguing flashbacks to his childhood. What binds these two stories?

START SPOILERS

I got hooked into the story very early on, but wished some events were approached a bit more deeply – certain things kept nagging me. For instance, would Felix, a dashing BBC reporter, not recognize a Jackson Pollock if he saw one hidden behind a dresser? How likely is it that Elina, a new mother severely weakened by a horrific experience of labour, would be left to take care of the baby by herself? Why does Elina’s mother not jump for joy when her estranged daughter suggests visiting her with her new-born grandson? Could vile Margot really have trapped Felix, especially when there were no children involved?

Although I effortlessly started to cared about some of the characters (Innes was a great one, I wished he had stuck around more) the novel’s power was diluted by a weak characterisation of secondary people, who could have been much more compelling if they had been given some texture. Vile Margot’s mother, Gloria, was described as pure evil. Felix was just too much of a shallow cad. (Or was he? We have to take Lexie’s word for it.) And did the plot really need Robert Lowe – couldn’t Lexie have gone to the beach by herself?

However, despite the weakness of many of the men in this novel, I really liked the two female leads, Lexie and Elina, unconventional in their own ways, strong and self-reliant women who ‘just got on with it’ and are connected by a love of art. It’s easy for me to like characters who love art, just like those who love books.

The novel’s sense of place was one of its strengths, as the bustling, bohemian Soho of the 50s and its current upmarket counterpart were vividly brought to life. O’Farrell did a great job when she focused on a room and described the transformations which occur to it over time. It brought home that the rooms we live in and the public spaces where we now drink cappuccino have many stories to tell:

Innes’s flat is no longer a flat, at first glance, it is unrecognisable, fifty years on. But the door jams are the same, the window fastenings, the light sandwiches, the ceiling coverings. the raised grain of his wallpaper is just discernible under the awful lilac paint that has been daubed on the wall. there is still the loose board on the landing, which always tripped people up, now covered with beige carpet, and no one who lives here now knows that under there, still, is a spare key for Elsewhere offices.

When O’Farrell deals with the early days and months of motherhood, the feel of a baby’s tense body in one’s arms, a rare moment of serenity shared by new parents, she was also considered spot on by my bookclub friends who are mothers. The dying scene on the beach, on the other hand, was more contentious. Deeply moving for some, like me, but rather sugary for others.

END SPOLIERS

This is my first Maggie O’Farrell, but I have The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in the TBR. Opinions over which of hers was the best were divided at the bookclub – any opinions?

I’ve managed once again to steer my bookclub to something already on my shelves MUAHAHAH. There was a lot of talk about this one when it first came out and people were polarized: they either love it or found it extremely annoying. I’m on the Love It Team. It’s not exactly a 5, but a solid 4. I’m also partial to my edition’s cover 🙂

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” isn’t strong on plot, in fact, nothing really happens at all until the last 50 pages. Even the entrance of the Handsome Stranger comes very late in the story. Until then, it’s all about the first-person musings of the two main characters. I’m rarely willing to read only meditations for chapters on end, but it’s different when the characters are so interesting.

There are only two narrators: Renée Michel and Paloma Josse. They both live in the same luxury apartment building in Paris, but Renée is the middle-aged concierge and Paloma is the 12-year old daughter of one of the tenants.

Renée is a closeted intellectual. Over the past decades she cultivated a careful persona of low-class stupidity. She uses little tricks that fool everyone around her because (and this is a big theme in the book) no one is really looking. She buys delicate food and bags it below the junk everyone expects her to eat (which she then feeds to her cat) and she leaves the TV on in her living room while she retires to the back room to read a good book or watch art cinema.

Paloma is a gifted kid who no one understands. In a way, she’s a closeted intellectual too, because in her family it’s her sister who’s “the smart one” as well as “the social one”, while Paloma likes quiet and solitude. She’s not a happy kid and has decided – very rationally, with no fuss – to set her apartment on fire on her 13th birthday (while making sure no one is home), and then kill herself.

Both narrators rule over alternated chapters, consisting mostly of their thoughts on books, beauty, art, camellias, grammar, the people around them, and philosophy (the real stuff, quoting Kant and Descartes). Around these complex mental lives, the building’s other inhabitants behave in their usual snobbish and generally superficial way, with occasional  glimpses of humanity. It becomes very interesting and slightly voyeuristic to see their comings and going trough the eyes of an intellectual concierge and a sharp 12-year-old.

All is business as usual at 7 Rue de Grenelle, when a mysterious Japanese man buys one of the apartments. He immediately sees through Renée’s façade (a careless Tolstoy quotation on her part – great scene) and makes friends with Paloma. He’s a disruptive element to the whole building, but in particular to the quiet lives of our two heroines. We even get to see some lovely makeover moments, which I’m always partial to.

There’s so much to be discussed and analysed in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, but in my not so humble option it’s mainly about seeing beyond the apparent, or as Renée says, to “go deeper”. As a reviewer said, this book it’s “the ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” I love people, I like watching them and am constantly surprised by their peculiar interests and habits. The small things are the best, like my company’s accountant’s passion for tango or my old neighbour’s obsession with growing the perfect cherry tomato. It makes people real and you do see beyond.

I wish I could have read it in the original. There’re lots of references to grammar and language that I’m sure would have much more meaning in French, or even in Portuguese (similar rules), but the English edition was a birthday gift. At the cost of going into stereotypes, I found it a very French book… in a good way. Subtle, quirky, satirical but filled with deep reflections on Life, the Universe and Everything else.

Do you usually go for this type of literature – slow/no pace and much musing? I’m a plot-girl myself, but this year’s no-plot books have been surprising me.

[Paloma] If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interesting interaction with human beings. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but unfortunately our cats have such drooping bellies that this does not apply to them. My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.

[Paloma about Renée] Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

This was the third book this year that I gave up on. The other two so far were:

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough – Oh Colleen… what was going through your mind? How could you? As Laurel said in the AustenProse blog: “Any Janeite who makes it to the third chapter of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is in my opinion free to think author Colleen McCullough an impudent rapscallion.” I made it to the fourth.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. I know this is going against the big majority, but there it is. It just plainly got on my nerves. I have low tolerance to surrealist literature – the whole premise that anything can happen without any reason gives me the same feeling as those dreams where you run and run and get nowhere. Alice also constantly reminded me of one of the most spooky and haunting books I’ve ever read: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro.

By Grand Central was my bookclub’s May book. In the end we ended up talking more about the author’s life than her book. It’s considered a classic of poetic prose, a long love letter from the author Elizabeth Smart to George Barker, who was also a poet and the father of her 4 children. Unfortunately, he was also the husband of another woman and the father of a total of 15 children by different women. So you can see how this might be an interesting topic for a group of 8 women over a glass of red wine…

I read about 25 pages of the 112 pages-long book until I realised I was reading the words, but nothing was being captured by my brain. By Grand Central is all about the language: language is the plot, the character and the setting. Smart’s is a word-crafter, but the baroque type, who stuffs layers of meaning/imagery in every single sentence. I Googled the book and the general impression seems to be clearly favourable, but me being me, I like a good story. And of course the melodrama also didn’t help. The pages I read and the ones I skipped through just felt a tinny bit too self-centrered – WW2 is turning the World into pieces , but let’s talk about ME! Here’s a nice example of her writing:

I am over-run, jungled in my bed. I am infested with a menagerie of desires: my heart is eaten by a dove, a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex, hounds in my head obey a whip-master who cries nothing but havoc as the hours test my endurance with an acclimation of tortures.

YIKES!

It’s true that in general I don’t enjoy reading poetry – except when it comes in the shape of song lyrics – but once in a while a poem strikes me. For instance, one of my all-time favourite poem is Ithaca by the Greek contemporary poet Constantine P. Cavafy. I actually came across it by digging more into Leonard Cohen’s song “Alexandra Leaving”, which was inspired by Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”. Yeat’s “When You Are Old” also always gets to me, especially when it’s read by Matthew Macfadyen.

Enjoying the sunny Sunday afternoon

In August 1974, a Frenchmen called Philippe Petit illegally stretched a cable between the top floors of the World Trade Center Towers. He then walked the distance separating the then two tallest buildings in the world. Below, New York stopped to watch him, and people connected as only strangers in the city can connect.

“Let the Great World Spin” is about a group of very different people who interact during that surreal day and how those moments influence the rest of their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to one particular character, among them the conflicted Irish priest who defends the cause of the Bronx’s prostitutes, the first hackers working on the ARPANET and the married couple in the “Studio 54”-type scene. Each is part of the others’ lives, but sometimes the connection is so subtle that you really need to be paying attention to spot it.

My favorite chapter was Claire’s. She is the mother of a Vietnam victim living in Park Avenue, who joins an informal group of other mothers in the same situation. On the day Petit walks the wire, she is to host the meeting.  McCann brilliantly takes us into her head: the obsessive planning, the half-hidden guilt of being wealthy and the stream of consciousness of one used to live mostly in her head:

“From the outside, the sounds of Park Avenue. Quiet. Ordered. Controlled. Still, the nerves jangle in her. Soon she will receive the women. The prospect ties a small knot at the base of her spine. She brings her hands to her elbows, hugs her forearms. The wind ruffles the light curtain at the window. Alençon lace. Handmade, tatted, with silk trimmings. Never much for French lace. She would have preferred an ordinary fabric, a light voile.”

What makes Claire’s story so fascinating is that far down the book we will see the same meeting seen from another (very different) perspective. As Jane Austen said “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other half.”

I’ve read enough books to know how very rare it is to find a writer that can pull off believable distinctive voices (you know, not just slang vs. Oxford English, but the use of language by different personalities), so I was able to appreciate the human mosaic which Colum McCann created with this book. I also felt that New York City was a character in its own right. McCann recreated the mood of the place and time so vividly, that I’m not surprised that a film adaptation is already “in development”.

“Gangs of kids hung out on the street corners. Traffic lights were stuck on permanent red. At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water. A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street. A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin. A burned neon sign stood upright. Fire trucks went by, and a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort. Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America.”

It was one of the best reads of the year so far. One of those rare books which is a pleasure for the story and for the way it’s written.

I’m off now to see Man on Wire and learn more about Petit’s adventure…

Three weeks ago I had eye surgery to correct my short sightedness. I knew I would be at least 2 weeks without being able to comfortably read, so I made sure I had enough audiobooks to see me through at least the one-week leave from work. I compared my wishlist to what was available on iTunes and in my boyfriend’s computer and ended up with this initial list:

The ones that had a bigger impact were The Uncommon Reader and Agnes Grey.

What would happen if the Queen of England became a fierce book-lover?

One normal day Her Majesty stumbles upon a mobile library in her backyard and that event triggers major changes in her household and country. She becomes curious, inquisitive and – most dangerous of all – … a Free Thinker.

For a moment it was touch and go for Her, after finding the first borrowed book (by Ivy Compton-Burnett) “a little dry.” But things started to improve with the next: Nancy Mitford’s “The Pursuit of Love”. It was a close call because, “if Her Majesty had gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good… Books, she would have thought, were work.

Here I wondered if this is what happens to a lot of people when, having read little or no classic lit, are asked to tackle Dickens and Homer at school. I honestly think that’s what put me off poetry for ever (except lyrics!).

I laughed out loud when Her Majesty suggests to the Prime Minister to read Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” during Her Christmas address to the country, since it would be about how “fate is something to which we are all subject.” The Prime Minister was not impressed: “I’m not sure that is a message the government would feel able to endorse (…) the public must not be allowed to think the world could not be managed. That way lay chaos. Or defeat at the polls, which was the same thing.

The Uncommon Reader is British humor at its best: witty and lots of great inside (bookworm) jokes. Best read with a nice cuppa.

Agnes Grey – why hasn’t BBC adapted this one?! I’m a proud member of the Bronte Brussels Group and their 19-century bookclub. I haven’t read all the sisters’ books, and Agnes Grey was actually my first Anne. I pulled it up in my priority list because the bookclub has recently read Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Life of Charlotte Bronte” and once again felt, that for a book about the family, Anne always seems to be in the background. The same happened after reading “The Bronte Myth”. Me being sucker for the ugly ducklings, I needed to know more about her.

Agnes Grey made Anne Bronte my favorite sister. I sometimes get a bit put off by the melodrama in Charlotte and Emily’s writing (crazy wife in the attic! Kathy’s ghost!), so Anne’s realism was a joy to read. She was herself a governess for many years, and not a happy one, so it’s easy to image some of the episodes in the book really happening. It also seeps throughout the novel Anne’s (and Agnes’) great love of Home, how she suffered when away from the moors and how the idea of them helped her get through the worst times.

One last though: Agnes’ experiences in her different positions is a strong reminder that infuriatingly spoilt children are common to all centuries (My Super Sweet Sixteen, anyone?).

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