Sunday, 11 October 2015

Audrey Niffenegger and Highgate Cemetery

Some years ago I read an interview with Audrey Niffenegger in connection with her latest book Her Fearful Symmetry (all quotes below from the book). The novel takes place in and around the Highgate Cemetery in London. Reading this book made me very curious on this burial ground, of which I was not aware of before. It was therefore high on my list during my last visit to London. And it does not disappoint.

The Content Reader
The entrance to the West Cemetery
There were a lack of burial ground in and around London in the mid-19th century. Stephen Geary, architect and entrepreneur bought the land and established the cemetery in 1839. However, it is not one ordinary cemetery; he constructed tombs and buildings where people could buy burial grounds for their whole family. The area, today very lush and at places overtaken by vegetation, is a fantastic, wonderful place to walk around in. In 1854, the west side of the cemetery became too small so an eastern part was bought and added to it. To solve the problem with transporting the coffins after services (there is a road in-between the two sides), they dug a tunnel under it and problem solved. On the East side you can walk around by yourself, but the West side is only accessible by a guided walk, well worth to take.
"The Victorians had created Highgate Cemetery as a theatre of mourning, a stage set of eternal repose."

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Fourth King by Glen Petrie

I have finished another book from my TBR shelves. It is from 1986, so has been there for some time! It is a mystery how some books stays so long on the shelves without being read. This one especially, since it is a historical novel, which I love. This novel tells the story of Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be Russia's greatest poet (I actually have a book with his poems, so now seems the time to read them as well) and his marriage to one of the most beautiful women of the time, Nataliya Nikolaevna Goncharova.

The Content ReaderThe novel starts with a Pushkin in exile. It seems he was at odds with the Tsar, Nicholas I, during most of his life. However, he is invited to come back to St Petersburg and meets for the first time Nataliya. She is only 13 years old, but he is fascinated and lost. They marry four years later. The novel mostly lingers on their married years. Pushkin is a man of the world, had many love interests and was a very experienced man. Nataliya is an innocent girl, having grown up in a family from the higher echelons of society, but somehow fallen down due to improper behaviour of the parents, plus lack of funds. Pushkin is not the first choice of either Nataliya or her mother, but in the end they both accept his proposal. This is a time when Pushkin feels ready to settle down and raise a family. Nataliya, on the other hand,  is overwhelmed coming into society, attending balls, flirting, dancing and the excitement of being close to the imperial family. She is so much younger than him and her life is just starting. Although warned by friends of Pushkin, to be careful since gossiping comes easy to this circle, she continues on a path on which there is no return. Her actions, as well as Pushkin's pride, lead to the cold, devastating January morning in 1837, when Pushkin is deadly wounded in a duel with his rival, Baron d'Anthès.

The book mostly covers the relationship between Pushkin, his wife and the supposed lover. Pushkin is troubled by his work (censorship and difficulties to write what he wants to write), money to pay for the lavish lifestyle, Nataliya's family, his own family and friends. But we meet many more people surrounding Pushkin and there are some surprises along the way. I don't know so much about Pushkin's life, so it is difficult to say where this historical novel is dealing with facts and fiction. Having read a little bit on the net, the grand design of the novel seems to relate to real events. Glen Petrie, has introduced a conspiracy by 'enemies' of Pushkin which I am not sure has any relevance in real life, but who knows. The writing feels genuin so I imagine that it is well researched. However, it makes for an exciting latter part of the book, and it is first here that the novel becomes a bit of a page turner.

Glen Petrie, is a historian, teacher and journalist (I think; it is difficult to find much information about him) and has written many books. This is well worth a read if you love historical fiction about real life characters. You get a hint of Russia at the time, but there is no in-depth story of either Pushkin, Nataliya or the Tsar, which supposedly is out of scope for a novel like this.

Petrie ends with an Epilogue and Afterword, which seems a summary of facts. The Epilogue is entitled "For many years to come I shall be beloved by the ordinary people", and this is probably no understatement. The Afterword is entitled "The great and good Pushkin should have had a wife who understood him better".  History can be very hard on people like Nataliya. Especially if they are married to a 'hero' of some kind and is not able to live up to the high standards that are set. Nataliya left for the countryside after Pushkin's death, but came back to St Petersburg and the social scene some years later. It is rumoured that she was the mistress of Tsar Nicholas, although he never formally acknowledged it. Petrie says though, that "there can be no doubt whatever that Tolstoy modelled Anna Karenina on her, and particularly his heroine's unflawed beauty and restless, suspicious unhappiness in Book Seven of the novel".

Last but not least, the word is Nataliya's.
"Her children of both marriages reported her as being an unhappy woman. Her youngest daughter - by Peter Lanskoy - recalled her saying shortly before her death in 1863, at the age of fifty-one, "They say people should never speak evil of the dead, but I know I shan't be allowed any peace, even in my grave."

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

43 Books You Won’t Be Able To Stop Talking About

Over at BuzzFeed Books they asked subscribers to their newsletter which books they could not stop talking about. The answers resulted in a list of 43 books, which really cover the whole range of genre books from Classics to modern YA fantasy. Head over to Buzz Feed Books (link above) to get a summary of each book.

For us with a huge number of TBR books it is difficult to look at such a list, because it is so tempting to read all the books. I guess they have to go on the To Read list instead. A book that seems very popular, considering the many and raving reviews from other bloggers, have ended up as No. 1;  A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara. This is a must it seems. From the list I find four books that I have read; Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 1984 by George Orwell, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese. L.P. Hartley's classic The Go-Between is waiting on my TBR shelves.

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
2. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
3. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
5. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
6. Bird Box by Josh Malerman
7. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
8. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
10. I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
11. The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
12. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
13. The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips
14. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
15. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
16. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
17. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
18. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
19. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
20. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
21. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
22. The Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
23. Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma
24. Death with Interruptions by José Saramago
25. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
26. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
27. Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius
28. 1984 by George Orwell
29. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
30. Defending Jacob by William Landay
31. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marr
32. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
33. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
34. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
35. Easy by Tammara Webber
36. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
37. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
38. Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
39. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
40. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
41. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
42. Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
43. Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

What about you? Have you read most of the books and do you agree that it is difficult to stop talking about them? Do you have other books that you cannot stop talking about. I agree about Wuthering Heights, The Secret History and Cutting for Stone. I am not so sure about 1984, although I read it many years ago and should maybe try it again. After all we are now closer to the times Orwell describes.

I also see some of my favourite writers in the list; Agatha Christie, Barbara Kingsolver, Paulo Coelho and José Saramago (of which I have one book on the TBR shelves, but have never read anything by him).

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

London revisited

The Content Reader
Me on the Cutty Sark
I have been to London this weekend. It is always such a treat. Lucky with the weather for two days at least, blue sky and sunshine, you could even sit outside to eat. Monday came with grey skies but we managed more or less to avoid more than a drip of rain.

My visits to London always comes with a well prepared list of things to see. My husband joined me this time and his wish was for Greenwich, which we visited on the grey Monday. We arrived Saturday afternoon, so just went for a walk down-town for some shopping. I wanted to buy the new iPhone, but alas, you had to order and wait for right one. That means I have to wait until it comes to Belgium, which will not be until around Christmas time. I managed to find a new calendar for my filofax and some stickers, and that was all. Walked back to our friend Richard's flat where we are luckily invited when in London. He lives in the Barbican, which is a terribly ugly building, today a protected one with very special architecture in concrete, but so central and convenient. In the evening we enjoyed a nice dinner at Cote Brasserie, in the neighbourhood.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Just finished this amazing book which I bought during my last sejour in Sweden. When checking the original title I realised that the original book is in German. Jan-Philipp Sendker was a foreign correspondent for German magazine Stern in the nineties (from 95-99 in Asia). In 2002 he wrote this book entitled Das Herzenhören.

It such a beautifully written book about the most important thing in life, love. In our busy world we tend to forget that, and we are stressing through the 'squirrel wheel' to achieve more and more. If you want to stop for a moment and reflect, you just have to read this book.

It is difficult to make a summary of the story without spoiling it for new readers.  It is developing in a way that surprises you all the time. Just a few hints of the story. Tin Win (originally from Burma) is a very successful Wall Street lawyer. One day, he is retired by this time, he leaves the flat in the morning not to return. Investigations show that he flew to Bangkok, but from there the track ends. Four years later, his daughter Julia, finds love letters her father wrote to a Mi Mi living in Burma. The curious thing is, the letters were never sent. She is somewhat shocked to find out that her father might have had a secret love affairs and curious why the letters were never sent. She has the address and decides to go looking for him.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Stuff You Wish You'd Been Taught at School

This funny, humorous book by Caroline Taggart is a must if you are interested in  A Classical Education. Here you get the most important information on the classical world, described in an easy way and with a lot of humour. I really loved it. We get a look at the classical Gods, the emperors, the philosophers, writers, architectural features, the sciences and much more. Here you find the background to a lot of features in our present world, be it language, characterisations, architecture, mythology and so on.

It is divided into chapters covering Languages, Religion and Mythology, Crete (this is a detour!), Ancient Greek History, Roman History, Classical Literature, Architecture and Art, Maths, Science and Inventions, Philosophy and the 'Liberal Arts' and the Games.

Here a few teasers. I start with Hercules.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The History of Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray

Ever since I read Vanity Fair by Thackeray, I am one of his fans. So, when the Brontë Reading Group in Brussels had his The History of Pendennis on the list, I was happy. Until I realised that it is a book of over 900 pages and I only had four days to read it! A slight misjudgment on my part, you could say! I read the e-book that is.

Since the discussions in the Reading group are always very lively and interesting, I don’t like to go there if I have not read the book. A big effort and an eight hour read the same day as the meeting was the cure. I managed to finish it in time to take a shower and get dressed!

As usual Jones had prepared us with questions to consider while reading the book. Here are just a few of them with my comments.

Does Pendennis qualify as one of the "loose baggy monsters'' that Henry James criticised among nineteenth-century novels?

I like this question, and I understand exactly what Henry James meant. There are so many thick books from this time. Of course we have to remember that normally a book at that time came out in three instalments, so they had to fill it out (think of Dickens!). Henry James was the total opposite with his rather thin books. But, what books! As an answer to the question; I would not include this book in  “loose baggy monsters”.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Scottish Writer's Series presents: Lucy Ribchester

An invitation from the Scottish Government EU Office in Brussels came my way. I was very excited when I realised that they host a 'Scottish Writer's Series'. What can be better than to actually meet the writer? So, I ventured into the city from the suburbs, and it has to be something very good for me to go downtown during the day. And it was!

Lucy, signing and Lynsey Rogers from the
Scottish Book Trust
The Scottish Book Trust, represented by Lynsey Rogers, supports young and upcoming Scottish writers, with scholarships, get aways, promotion assistance and other supporting schemes. Lucy Ribchester received the New Writers Award in 2012/2013 which helped her finish her first novel The Hourglass Factory, which was presented today. From the back cover of the book I read:

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Which five books would you take with you to a deserted island?

There has not been to much action here lately. It is all due to a very busy schedule this week. Lots of things going on, so even reading is slow. But I have read some books, so more reviews will follow. In the meantime, I get inspired by your reading, by a book I read, which gives me inclinations to read either the same author again, another book from the same time and so on. I also reflected a little bit on which books are my all time favourites, so that is why I was thinking of which five books I should take to a deserted island. Of course, if you end up on a deserted island, you probably just end up there, and there will not be any time to pack some books. But, we are living in the world of the books, so we can make it happen. So here is my list, in no special order.

The Content Reader

  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (a favourite book and don't we just love to dislike Scarlet?)
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (a wonderful piece on a disappearing world order)
  • The Garden of Evening Mist by Tan Twang Eng (a beautifully written book on terrible times, but where love, in spite of everything, grows)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (my favourite Brontë book, although dark and violent, Heathcliff's and Catherine's love knows no borders)
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (just love this love story crossing over present and past)
The Content Reader

The Content Reader

Three of the books are written many years ago. Time will tell whether a book is good or not. For the two new books, we still don't know, but these two books at least kept me occupied and they stayed with me afterwards.

Which are the five books that you would take with you to your deserted island?

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Having read the biography about Zelda (Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald - An American Woman's Life by Linda Wagner-Martin) the best thing would have been to read her own book Save Me the Waltz, but it is not yet on my shelves. The second best would be to read something by Scott Fitzgerald, and The Great Gatsby conveniently was sitting on my TBR shelves. It was actually my son who had to read it in school, and he handed over the copy to me.

I actually think I have read it before. In any case, I have seen two versions of the movie, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and lately with Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan. Here is my confession: I never really understood this book/movie. That might be ok for the movies, since you can only show certain things, but also the book. However, having read the story of Zelda's and Scott's life and the times they were living in, I finally got an understanding of the story.

The Content ReaderAll in all, I find it rather sad. Gatsby with his longing for Daisy, and one goal in his life, to win her over with wealth and care. Daisy, remembering her early love for Gatsby, but now married to Tom, in a marriage that does not seem lucky or healthy on the surface, but, in the end, turns out to be firmer than one can imagine. The story is told by a narrator, Nick Carraway. He happens to rent the house next to Gatsby's palace and they become friends. Nick is also an old friend of Daisy's and thus becomes involved in their story. Their story evolves into an unexpected tragedy which changes their lives forever.
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…
It is a story about Fitzgeralds' own lives. Money, parties, champagne and glorious people. However, underneath the surface lingers an unhappiness that drags the people down. Most of the time, without them seeing it. In this, one of his greatest books, he tries to capture the mood of the age; the 1920s, money and class, east and west and race and gender. The leisurely life-stile, including a lot of alcohol, gives the story a dreamlike appearance, like we, the readers, are part of the intoxication. The only 'sober' person seems to be Nick Carraway who is able to watch the people from the side-line. In the end he is the only person 'getting away' from it all. The others are forever entangled in their own lives.