Thursday, 6 September 2012

Summer 2012 Book review

The virgin suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides
Now I'm one of the "lucky" people whose university does not start until October, and therefore for me, it could be argued that I still have a good three weeks left of summer. However, I disagree with this opinion for several reasons, mainly the fact that as I currently have no job and am having to give up driving lessons due to the expense I have very little to do, aside from go out with friends and spend yet more money *rolls eyes*. See, I'm not even officially at university yet, and my financial situation means that I'm already living the student lifestyle.
Anyway, back to the main point, which is that I'm going to review my favourite books of summer 2012, which I've read from June until now, September. Some of the books are quite well known, some of them are classics or popular in modern culture (you'll see the ones I mean) but I'm going to go through the ones that have really meant the most to me, and have been the most memorable.
List of all of the books I've read this summer;
  • The Hunger Games trilogy - Suzanne Collins
  • Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
  • Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates
  • One Hundreds Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Lighthousekeeping - Jeanette Winterson
  • Black Dogs - Ian McEwan
  • The Silver Blade - Sally Gardner
  • Swamplandia! - Karen Russell
  • Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
  • Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
  • The diving bell and the butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
  • The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman
  • Love in the time of cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The almost moon - Alice Sebold
  • The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
  • The Help - Kathryn Stockett
  • The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Scarlet Letter - Nathanial Hawthorne
  • The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  • The Remains of the day - Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Katherine - Anya Seton

So that's 23 books in total, I'm impressed! I obviously love reading anyway, and when I was at school, especially in the last 6 months, the only thing I read were my English lit. and History books, in particular the novels that I had to know for my Gothic exam! It's been great to spend the last 3 months or so reading fiction that I've heard many people talk about, or even just books that caught my eye, and so now I'm going to go through some of the books that I really feel are worth recommendation;

  1. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

This book is so short that no one has an excuse not to read it. It is on most GCSE English specifications, but I didn't study it at school, and so perhaps was able to enjoy it more than most people my age. However, what I really appreciated about this book was the simplicity of Steinbeck's style and the honesty of his subject. The historical background is that of the "dust bowl", in America, and the hardship and struggle of migrating farm workers (also seen on a more epic scale in Grapes of Wrath) but what affected me most was the relationship between Lennie and George, and if you've read the book before then you'll understand. It's not overly emotional, it's not described in a way that is visual beautiful, but this novel is real and expressionate, it is passionate without preaching and descriptive without being sentimental, that's the only way I can adequately summarise it, but believe me, upon completion it is easy to see why it is considered Steinbeck's best work!

2. The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides

The image for this post is designed for this book , and I have included stills from the 1990s film of the same name.

Haunting, tragic and oddly familiar, the almost unique narrative style of this book, combined with the supposedly ordinary 1970s suburban American setting has drawn me to this book again and again. The title hints at what the book is based around, and yet the strange thing is the book is as much as celebration of life as it is of death. The book is not about suicide in particular, but about the effects of a series of events on a group of teenage boys which lead up to, and continue after the suicide of Lisbon sisters. You'd think reading a novel where you already know the ending would be boring, but this is not the case, the back story and sweeping narrative commentary creates an engaging story, with comments inserted from the narrators in the future, as they collectively recount their teenage years, discussing objects that they have stored away with their memories, and moving the story forward with information regarding their personal investigation and obsession with the Lisbon girls. This book has a fantastic style, I can't stress that enough, and even if you don't like stories involving suicide or death, or teenagers in particular, there is something about the retrospective narration and bittersweet adolescence reminiscence that will hold your attention.

3. The diving bell and the butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby

Another short book which had the ability to make me fall back in love with life again. It is based on a true story, and it was written by a man who, after suffering a terrible stroke, can only use his eyelids to blink and communicate with the outside world. If you have ever felt alone inside your head then this is the book for you. There is a residing, melancholic tone throughout the narrative (which I'm sure readers will forgive given the context) and yet you will not look at your boring, nine-'til-five rountine in the same way again after reading this incredible story and simply being grateful for the fact that you are indeed alive. The book shows how it is possible to remain stationary and yet travel to a thousand places, and to be immobile and yet in full flight in your imagination. It's a book about triumph and disaster, about guilt and innocence, fate and determination. It is one of the most personal and (perhaps confusingly) universal books I have ever read.

4. One Hundreds Years of Solitude & Love in the time of cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have grouped these two books together because I love the way that Marquez tells a story, and the things I liked about each book are common to them both. Personally, I preferred the plot in Love in the time of cholera  and some of the characters in One Hundreds Years of Solitude as bizarre as that seems. Marquez has the ability to make you completely change your mind about a character, to switch allegiance between lovers, to see two sides of an internal conflict, reflected in the violence which was based on the Columbian civil war. The magical surrealism in One Hundreds Years of Solitude is astounding, but I have to say that the repetition of character names through different generations became very hard to follow! Love in the time of cholera is a spirited story which cannot be labelled as a straightforward romance, but rather as a chronicle of the struggle of two people to accept their love for each other, in varying circumstances and through the very separate paths of their lives. The narration in these novels switches between dreamy prose, depicting images of vibrant colour, and sharp dialogue, in which much more is implied than is ever spoken.

5. The Scarlet Letter - Nathanial Hawthorne

People should not be put off this novel by the fact that most people have claimed to have read it (in reality they've just seen the film with Gary Oldman and Demi Moore in it and presumed that it is a true replication of the book!) or that the story was written nearly 200 years ago. The novel is still as accessible today, even for teenagers, and the writing style is really not a barrier - in fact I found Dracula written in 1897, much harder to understand in places - and some of the detail and emotion seems even more poignant today without the cliched similes of today's writing. Ultimately this is not just a Hollywood love story, it's about religion versus morality, the justice of crime and punishment and the harsh reality of life for those who first settled in America. The story focuses around the isolation and exclusion of a woman from a community, and a man from himself. It will challenge your perception of right and wrong, and reminds us that in several hundred years we will be questioning what is supposedly above repute today.

6. The Remains of the day - Kazuo Ishiguro

If you like Downton Abbey, or feel that in a past life you lived and worked in an old English house, than you'll love this book as much as I did. Or, if you enjoy stories about memories, and memory itself, and if you like reading about people who are so clearly trying to make a future out of a near-forgotten past. The book is told through the lofty and matter-of-fact narration of an aging butler, who reflects on his life of service, and that of his father too. It could be read as a love story, but to be honest it is more a tale of missed opportunities and of regret, and the type of revelation that can only come to us later in life. Ishiguro sets all of this against the backdrop of the English West country, and in the aftermath of the second world war, in which the lines of friendship and international relations have become irrevocably blurred. Using a type of personal reflection and quiet contemplation that made Never Let me go such a success Ishiguro engages the reader in a very English and entirely absorbing fictional memoir.

7.  Katherine - Anya Seton

Written in the 1950s and based around the life of Katherine Swynford, a 12th century noble, you may think that I've put too much of my personal interest in history into this choice. On the other hand, I would argue that this historical romance, although not 100% accurate, is incredibly well researched for its time, I actually liked that mentions of fleas and various diseases and dirt feature because in so many modern historical fiction it seems that whilst all of the pageantry of medieval life is preserved, the real-life details are neglected. This book works on several levels, on one level it is a simple rags to riches tale with some historical truth, on another it is a romantic version of the life of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, but surpassing all of the emotions and quasi-historic facts, my favourite part of this book was the journey that the character of Katherine goes on, in the life that Seton has imagined for her. The book, in this case, might well have been about any female, real or imaginary, but for me the historical background and reference to dramatic events in English history (the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381) made it a truly memorable read.

If you agree/ disagree with any of my opinions on these books, feel free to comment! Also, if you have read anything especially good this summer, including some of the books I've read and didn't talk about in detail, let me know!

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