Sonntag, 30. Dezember 2012

Changes and Enthusiasm

As all of you currently reading this will probably have noticed, I have finally managed to upload a background image. Doesn't sound like a big deal, right? Except that it took me three whole days, various visits on nerdy IT-websites and several nervous breakdowns to make it work. And they say we're the computer generation...
Anyway, I am brimming over with enthusiasm right now, so I'll seize the opportunity to announce a few changes and plans for 2013. After all, it already is almost New Year's Eve.

A little early, but still: Happy new year!
Like probably every other devoted reader during the last few years and especially now that they are becoming so mainstream I have given a little thought to e-readers. The idea of carrying around as many books as you want to and never lack space on your shelves again is an intriguing one, but in the end I am just a little too old-fashioned to decide on giving up all tangible books for a mere gadget. Thankfully this decision was made for me since I received a Kindle for Christmas! I'm still in the testing phase, but so far I'm -unexpectedly- loving Atticus (yes, I've already named him: which name could be more appropriate than that of book-loving wonderful Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird?). 
The first e-book I've downloaded is Jude Morgan's fictionalised biography of the Brontë family, The Taste of Sorrow. It is very interesting, but I'm anxious to finish it before tomorrow night because I don't want to start 2013 with a half-read book. It is silly, but for me it just feels better to start a new year with a new book.
Which brings me to my developing reading plans! I love making plans and participating in reading challenges, and I am especially excited since I had to cancel all my challenges this year because of my abrupt hiatus.

The amazing Narrative Poem Reading Challenge is hosted over at Half-Hilled Attic. I plan on finally reading Dante's Purgatorio and Paradiso after loving Inferno so much. Additionally I feel as if it was about time I finally tackled Homer, so I will probably give him a try, as well as Edmund Spenser's The Faery Queene which I'm really curious about. And of course Paradise Lost, which I've wanted to read for years but somehow never did.

Another challenge which comes exactly at the right time is the Books on France Reading Challenge. Usually I am horribly neglecting French literature (and my poor French), but this is the chance to change that. I will probably be aiming for the level "beaucoup", meaning that I will read 6 French books, so one every two months, but it will take me a little longer to decide on the titles.

And my for the moment last challenge will be the Wishlist Challenge from Uniflame Creates. This one is especially fun because you only read books that are already on your wishlist; so you basically get to read those books you've been wanting to lay hands on for ages. During the next few days I'll write a separate announcement post detailing which 12 titles I plan to read for this challenge.

That's it for now! I hope I can carry some of this enthusiasm into 2013. Oh, and before I forget: I'm wishing you all a great last day of 2012 and a good beginning of the next year!

Donnerstag, 27. Dezember 2012

Stuck in the Labyrinth

NS2515 : Labyrinth of stones by Andrew GuthriePerhaps thinking really is the root of all evil, the source of all unhappiness.
Look at me half a year ago: quite obviously there was nothing wrong with my life, nothing, except the nagging  doubt in my mind. There were just so many unanswered questions; questions I tried not to think about because they only made me miserable, but I literally couldn't. One cannot stop thinking simply because  one wishes to. And the more I thought about them; the more I thought in general, the more I felt the sadness creeping in and seeping through my whole being.

What will become of my life? How shall I ever choose the right path for my future in this labyrinth of possibilities? What do I really want? Will I ever find someone with whom I can be just myself? Why am I so different from everyone I know? Why do I always have to pretend in society; pretend I like people I can't stand, pretend I'm interested in their trivialities, pretend I am just like them? Why can't I keep my mouth shut when I know it's better to be quiet? Why do I quarrel with almost everyone? Why do I feel best when I am hidden away from the world, reading? Why is the world inside my mind so much more beautiful than the one outside? Why is my life so boring? Will it ever be anything else? Am I making myself unhappy because I expect too much? How could I think myself in any way special, expect something special for me? Do I even want this life at all? What would be so bad about throwing it away? Why can't I just give up?  And, the ever classic: Is there a sense in life? What for am I on earth? When I die, will something remain apart from dust and shadows?

You see, five minutes in my mind are probably enough to drive anyone mad. But there is another especially burning question, one which may explain to you why exactly I refused to read anything since August.
Perhaps it is my own fault that I am so unhappy? Perhaps I have made myself sad by reading too much, perhaps the books have simply planted unrealistic ideas in my mind? Perhaps I would not be so unsatisfied with the real world if I had never entered the world between the pages of a book?
I have no answer to this, but I tried to find one by changing my life completely. I tried to be a typical teenager, just like everyone else around me. I tried to stop thinking, stop caring, I went out a lot, drank and smoked. Needless to say, instead of feeling happy I slowly started to hate everyone, and above all myself.

And now? Now I am back. Changed and with a vast collection of new scars, but still back. I realised I missed a part of myself, in fact I missed the very part of me that makes me myself. This part is hard to define, but blogging, reading the classics and all of you definitely belong to it.
I know that I will have to make a lot of changes on this blog (and in my life) and I don't quite know yet which direction things are going to take, but I am back for good. If you still want me, that is.

Dienstag, 14. August 2012

What a Week!

About a week ago I came back from holidays brimming over with enthusiasm. I wanted to blog all day long, write about books, talk about books and read all the books on my shelves at the same time because each book seemed like a glorious adventure. And now? There's hardly anything left of it and it's my own fault, so this is probably going to be the first completely non-bookish post I've ever written.
This week a lot of crazy stuff has been going on here. How come I'm always busier during summer break than when I have to go to school? This is a serious scientific problem.

I'll start with the sad news: my guinea pig Hermine (named after the German variation of Harry Potter's Hermione) died as an old lady of eight and a half years. I sat by her when it happened and if you have ever watched a little animal die, you'll know that it is heartbreaking. She lay on her side, something which she had never done before and now and then her whole body jerked violently. At the very end her eyes were wet and it looked as if she was crying. I had never seen anyone or anything die before, but when she suddenly lay very still I knew that she was dead. Not the best start into a week...

To "cheer me up" my whole family decided to organise a belated birthday party for me since I actually turned sixteen on the 29th of July, but was in Greece at the time. I suspect that they all just wanted to eat birthday cake, because they know exactly that I hate my birthday. There is something about being the birthday girl, being the supposed centre of attention that I never liked and since my family had a horrible quarrel during my birthday party some years ago I refuse to recognise birthdays as special days in any way. Well, my family celebrated nonetheless, ate their cake and were satisfied. Back to normal life now, please!

Lord of the Dance - 10 Cry Of The Celts, The Lord of the Dance and The Clan

Finally something positive to tell! While my mood was definitely below average for a large part of last week, I have some amazing news. I am sure you all know shows like Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. What those incredible dancers do is Irish Dance, a form of traditional Irish stepdance which makes the dancers look as if they were weightless. Last week I listened to some Irish folk songs and suddenly wondered how one could not dance to these rhythms, so I did a lot of research and found several academies for Irish dance in Austria. Unfortunately they are all situated in Vienna which is about three hours' drive away from where I live. But since annoying people has often led me to success I wrote emails to all those schools inquiring after a possibility to learn dancing in Graz. To make a long story short, after several desperate calls to complete strangers I actually found a coach who is starting a beginners' class here in my tiny town in October.
Trinity Academy of Irish Dance
I am so excited! The only problem is that I have no experience in dancing at all and that I am not a very athlectic person. I have started working out in order to be fit enough when dance class starts (and lose a little weight, have you seen those dancers? Tiny elves, all of them!) and that is the reason I am currently reading so little. My muscles are sore, I'm tired and cannot really concentrate.
So, enough whining! I seriously have to get back to writing focused posts without self-pity. Maybe I'll manage that tomorrow...I have lots to say about Persuasion and Jane Austen.
I hope you're all having a nice week!

Montag, 6. August 2012

Not all those who wander are lost - My favourite classic

Like the vast majority of devoted readers I protest at having to choose one favourite book. That is simply not possible; what with North and South, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and The Divine Comedy, to name just a few. On the other hand nothing is easier for me than choosing the book I have the most personal connection with, the one which changed my life the most and which I spent so many hours dreaming over that its pages became my substitute for the real world. The title of this post already gives away which book I am talking about, at least for those of you who have read and maybe loved it.

To be honest, my history with The Lord of the Rings is not a cheerful story; in fact it is a story of loneliness and not belonging anywhere and after reading it even the last of you will be convinced that I am a complete nerd: how else could I feel this way about a fantasy book? But I don't care because for me The Lord of the Rings is so much more than just a book: it is my childhood, it is accepting myself, it is the world I explored before I had the courage to even want to go anywhere apart from Middle-Earth. For me, it is home.

I was nine years old when I first came across the strange name "The Lord of the Rings". Like so many others I have to thank Peter Jackson's wonderful movies (which are definitely my favourite movies ever, here it's easier to choose than with books) for getting to know Mr Tolkien at all. My mama saw all the movies when they were released and loved them so much that she bought the books, although she never read them. A few years later the movies were shown on TV here in Austria and after having put me and my little brothers to bed she sat down to watch The Fellowship of the Ring with my oldest sister. Had I slept well that night my life would have taken a different direction, but fate in the shape of a nightmare drove me to the living room not long after the movie had started. Normally no mother would allow her nine-year old to watch such a movie, after all there are quite a few rather tough fighting scenes in it, but somehow people seemed to be constantly forgetting my age when I was a child.
Of course I was always very tall, but more than that I was always "mature"; I led serious discussions about things no normal nine-year old girl would think of, I used big words and had even bigger ideas.In fact my mama sometimes says half-jokingly that she thinks I never was a child at all. And that is the reason why I hated a grand part of my childhood so much.

When I started school I had already taught myself how to read and write and I was impatient to learn more. I asked questions all the time and when I didn't understand something or when my opinion differed from my teacher's I actually argued with her. Now, I went to a catholic convent school and my teacher was a very severe and rigorous nun...You can imagine how well she understood my character. She criticised me all the time, often made me stay with her during the breaks and after school to lecture me and brought me to tears several times a week. The only thing that was worse than dealing with her was dealing with the other children in my class. I could as well have been from another planet so little did I understand them and they me! The only things they cared for were Disney movies, sleepovers, boygroups and Barbies. Of course they only acted their age, but I didn't know that then. The only thing I knew was that I was an outcast, I longed for adventures, stories, great ideas and dreams and I wanted to do something meaningful, to be so much more than just a little lonely schoolgirl.

That was the point of my life where I met Frodo and Sam, Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn and all the others. All the heroes. There they were: brave and strong enough to face all their enemies despite their fear, even the smallest of them standing up and fighting for what is right, for hope, for freedom. They showed me exactly who I wanted to be. They became my friends when I had no others. For years I would imagine Gandalf by my side whenever I was afraid, Gandalf in whose presence I could only be safe. When I needed to be strong I slipped into the role of Aragorn and when I was frustrated because I was treated like a little child I remembered Éowyn. My brothers and I would spend hours in the woods fighting with our bows and "swords", escaping from black riders and defeating Sauron. Honestly I think a lot of the self-confidence I have comes from that time: I knew everything about Middle-Earth and learned a great deal about our world through it. I still know almost all of the songs (I even composed melodies for them) and poems which appear in the book by heart and some of them are about three pages long. Finally I had something special only for me, something which the people who bullied me would never understand. But now that I think of it, being a little girl who was able to handle a sword certainly helped to boost my confidence a little too.

I devoured all the movies and then I became the first to take the books from my mother's shelves and find comfort in their pages. I know that many people who loved the film were disappointed by the book and that makes me sad because these two are simply completely different things. While the movies tell the wonderful stories of a few characters, Tolkien does not really want to do so primarily. What Tolkien does is create a whole world, he doesn't just invent a few heroes, places and magical creatures like the fantasy authors nowadays do; he tells the story of his world, consisting of an incredible number of separate stories, each of them as complex as that of Frodo and the Ring. Middle-Earth goes so much farther than The Lord of the Rings. Every side character, even every place has a history and most of them are only touched upon in Tolkien's actual books. Middle-Earth is boundless and its complexity allows it to become real. It became my reality when I wanted nothing else than to get away from this world I hated so much. It was my world when I needed it and if you listen carefully it can become yours too.

"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost"
Seven years have passed since I first found a home in Middle-Earth. In this time I managed to find a place for me in the "real" world too, but without the dreams from my first home I would never have had the courage to look for it. And, believe it or not, if I try to be a little better a person today than others in similar circumstances, if I look for beauty in seemingly hopeless places, if I fight for what I believe is right and if I never give up I owe it to J.R.R..
You can call me a nerd now, of course, but you can also call me a patriot: a part of my heart will forever belong to Middle-Earth.

Samstag, 4. August 2012

A Sign of Life

Do you remember almost a month ago when I wrote a post saying that I was going on a holiday to France but that I would be back in two weeks? Yeah, that's what I thought back then. The reason why you haven't heard anything from me since is that despite all probabilities I'm not back at home yet. As I'm writing this I'm sitting at the Cretan airport waiting for my flight home: my mama surprised me and my brothers with a holiday at the beach the very day after I came back from France. Isn't my life stressful?!

This is basically a don't-worry-I'm-still-alive-and-having-a-good-time-post, but unless another unexpected trip pops up I should be back to blogging regularly tomorrow. And good God, I'm swooning at the thought of how I'll ever be able to catch up with all your great posts! 
Don't get me wrong, the last three weeks were amazing, especially my time in France was incredible (perhaps I'll write a little post about it another time?), but I will be quite happy when I'm comfortably at home again. I have missed reading your thoughts on books and life more than I would have thought possible and I have a vast number of posts in my mind which will hopefully all be written soon. Don't be annoyed if I'm a little over-active in August, I have to make up for my involuntary blogging break in July!

Anyway, my reading has not been as scarce as my reviewing, in fact I have a whole bunch of reviews yet to write. In France I read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, which surprised me completely by how much I loved it (I'm giving up, Diana. Never again will I doubt the awesomeness of a book you recommend!).

Then I finished An Ideal Husband, which I found good, of course, but not outstanding. Perhaps I've read a little too much Wilde recently? I'm getting very used to his humour. 
In contrast to it I picked up Wuthering Heights - you see I stayed faithful to the Victorians for Allie's Victorian Celebration, although unfortunately I did not manage to write my reviews in time for it. In my opinion the event could have lasted some more weeks, the Victorians and I are becoming the best of friends!

In August I hope to catch up with the Les Misérables readalong which I have once again shamefully neglected as well as participate in Alice's The Moonstone readalong; that is if she still lets me.
I have also promised to read a book by Jane Austen (and if you know me, you'll know what that means for me) but more about that in another post.

Lastly (quickly, because my flight was just announced) and completely unrelatedly I want to thank you all for the nice comments on my last post. I was really overwhelmed by all your lovely wishes for my trip. I couldn't answer them then, but now I do: thank you very much, I feel honoured to belong to such an amazing blogging community. 
So, time to go home!

Samstag, 7. Juli 2012

Au Revoir

Yesterday was the date I anticipated most for many months: the last day of school. Finally I have passed all tests, written all essays, done all research projects and, thank God, received my certificate.
What lies before me now are two golden months of summer holidays before the madness begins again.
Summer holidays mean reading, sleeping until noon, lazy afternoons at the pool - and travelling.
Tomorrow my dad, Honeyponey and I are leaving at an unearthly hour for France. At least when she's in a good mood Honey is the sweetest "little" sister you can imagine, she is 18 but doesn't quite act her age, and my dad is a slightly confused person anyway, so most of the planning and navigation of our trip will be up to me. I don't really mind though, if nothing else it will be a splendid opportunity to practise my French. Five years of learning have to amount to something, don't they?

According to the plan we will be touring the south of France for the next two weeks and the weather is currently the very picture of summer, so I am really excited. From Graz we will drive to San Remo in Italy first  and then further on to France, along the shore of the legendary Côte d'Azur with a stop in Monaco to the Provence and then as far west as to Toulouse. I am still trying to convince my dad to extend the trip to Andorra for a day, but even if he doesn't give in I will still see places as famous as Nice, Cannes, Marseille, Avignon, Nîmes and Carcassonne. I think to say that I am excited is in fact the understatement of the year.
The only drop of bitterness is that I will not be around to blog and read your posts for two whole weeks. I will have a hard time catching up on all of you once I'm back!

I don't expect to have much time for reading, but since I never leave home without a book I am of course taking some Victorians with me. Wuthering Heights will stay in Austria because somehow I'm having a hard time getting into it and I'd rather read it when I'm craving some Bronte romance instead of having to force myself to read it. Apart from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories are fantastic for travelling) I will also be taking my edition of Oscar Wilde's plays with me and probably finish An Ideal Husband. 
Anyway, what I am most excited about is North and South, I have read the first hundred pages and want to read on and on and on; in short I'm utterly loving it and could continue to write about it for a long time, but my unpacked suitcase is calling me. Au revoir, mes amis et à bientôt!

Freitag, 6. Juli 2012

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

 A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Women and now of course Anne of Green Gables - How come I never read any of the common children's classics when I was young? Sadly, those wonderful English books are hardly known here and if children are familiar with their stories at all, then only thanks to movie adaptations. Perhaps all those classics are so little-known in Austria because they always lose some of their charm when they are being translated, but I cannot help wondering why we don't have any German classics to pass from generation to generation instead. The only thing I'm sure about is that I will hand my copy of Anne of Green Gables on to my future daughter, so that she will know what her mother was like when she was her age.

Here is something which should never appear in a review, but which I have to admit in all honesty: I cannot talk neutrally or objectively about Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley is so much like the little girl I used to be that I desperately wish I had read about her when I was still a child. Then I would have known that so many kindred spirits are out there that even books are written about them! I read some passages (especially speeches of Anne dropping with big words and greater ideas) to my mother and she was amazed because apparently I regularly delivered similar monologues when I was a child. Quite coincidentally I even had red hair until some years ago when it lightened to strawberry blond, and believe me, being called "carrots" is a capital offense which totally deserves being punished with eternal hate.

Anne's passionate nature, her limitless curiosity and of course her imagination are very familar to me too. Unfortunately I also share her habit of losing my temper when someone treats me disrespectfully.
Reading this when I was still Anne's age would have been a wonderful experience, but I enjoyed it very much anyway now that I finally came across it. While reading I was reminded of many episodes of my childhood which I had completely forgotten and I have to say that perhaps it is a good thing I never heard of Anne Shirley when I was young: I cannot even imagine all the mischief her stories would have inspired me to.
Needless to say, I love the character of Anne Shirley and envy Diana quite ardently for being her bosom friend.
“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
Mrs Montgomery certainly had a fantastic talent for creating characters, for although I will probably quickly forget most of Anne's childhood adventures, the people surrounding her will stay with me for a long time. Matthew's pride of and care for Anne especially warmed my heart and Marilla reminded me of my grandmother in her harsh but loving way. The ending was so sad that I actually cried, which happened the last time to me at the ending of A Tale of Two Cities.
Oh, and I am very curious what will become of Gilbert Blythe, I think I see some romance coming. Usually I don't care too much for long series and I don't promise I will read all eight Anne books, but I guess it's safe to say that Anne of Avonlea will be among my birthday presents this year.

Mittwoch, 4. Juli 2012

Half a Year, twenty Books and a whole new Person

It is the first week of July and halway-through-the-year-posts are mushrooming everywhere over the blogging community. Of course I meant to join the general trend anyway with an update on my reading challenges, my progress in personal life as well as in reading and plans for the rest of the year, but until last night I had no idea how much this past half-year really changed me.

Yesterday I was sitting on the balcony and reading Wuthering Heights when my sister came by in a very bad mood and asked how I could read such boring books. Needless to say, she never read Wuthering Heights or any other Brontë, in fact the only classics she ever touched were a few German and Austrian books she absolutely had to read for school. Never did she read or even want to read an English classic, she knows nothing of Dicken's adorable characters apart from what she saw in the Mickey Mouse adaptation of A Christmas Carol, she never stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish a case with Sherlock Holmes and if you mentioned the name Wilkie Collins in her presence I'm sure she would think you were talking about a woman. More than anything, she never read a thought which so essentially mirrored the depths of her soul that the author must have known her, must have written these sentences about her because surely no one else in the world could feel exactly the same, just to be reminded that those thoughts were published hundreds of years before she was born.

How dare she call the classics boring and stupid when she has never read them? To say it with her own words: because they are old, and old books cannot be interesting. She is not able to imagine that maybe even when an author wrote his book by hand and had never heard of a thing like the telephone he may have felt the same feelings as she does and captured them in his writings. She cannot envision that she will feel less alone because in Jane Eyre there is a girl who thinks exactly the same way she does and who is entirely so like herself that the fact that she never lived matters little. She knows nothing of kindred spirits.
And, despite my angry attempt to explain all this to her, she can't waste her time trying to read something which she knows to be absolutely boring when there are so many good, i.e. new (fantasy) books out there.

After our argument I was furious because she condemned something I love without knowing anything about it, without giving it a chance and without listening. A little later I was sad, because I realised that most people think like my sister and that in fact I don't know anyone in real life who reads the way I do. While I love the blogging community and find it wonderful to exchange thoughts and opinions with all of you I cannot help feeling lonely at times because I can never have a face-to-face discussion about the books I read with anyone. Anyway, right now I'm feeling neither sad nor lonely, but happy and thankful for this past half-year.

I started reading the classics and simultaneously blogging in December, so now I am looking back on the first half-year of reading classic literature in my life. Not counting a few non-classic titles, I have read twenty books until now. That is not much, but you cannot imagine how much those twenty titles have changed me. Half a year ago I would have shrugged and wondered a little about it if someone had told me that all books written before 1900 were boring, now I am starting a fiery argument because those twenty books turned me into someone else. They changed me because A Tale of Two Cities made me turn pages quicker than the finale of Harry Potter could and because the love story in Jane Eyre captivated me more than the one in Twilight. Even though I am still a raw beginner, have not read a tenth of what I would like to have finished by now and in all honesty know virtually nothing about literature, I feel like I have progressed immensely. I may not be doing too well in my reading challenges, which is rather I am failing them epically, but I am not worried at all. Firstly, I have two months of holidays before me to catch up and will probably read from sun-up to sun-down and secondly I feel that I have already learned that which is most important and which so many never do because they are either too lazy or to prejudiced: to love the classics with all my heart.

Sonntag, 1. Juli 2012

Mark Twain and The Awful German Language

And there I thought I was having a difficult relationship with German! Compared to Mark Twain I am a faithful and devoted admirer of its curiosities. In his essay The Awful German Language he spares no pains to prove its horrible shortcomings, complete disorder and lack of system; in fact Mark Twain takes his criticism as far as the boundaries of satire and his imagination will let him.

First off: I don't really know how I liked this "brilliantly witty piece of literature" as the blurb of my edition states. It is a very light, short and entertaining read for anyone who has ever had troubles learning an illogical and complicated language. While I of course could not relate to the problems any foreigner must have learning German (for I admit it has a horribly difficult grammar), I remembered a lot of similar difficulties I had with other languages such as French, Spanish and Italian. And this is where my criticism begins.
I am by no means influenced by national pride -there is hardly a harsher critic of my land and language than a true Austrian-  but for a native speaker of German some of Twain's remarks are simply ridiculous.

Mark Twain cannot have had much experience studying foreign languages, because the predominant part of his critique can be applied to almost any European language, not just German. The completely random distribution of sexes for example is a part of any language I have ever studied (except for Japanese, but that has its own stumbling blocks). That the English language is free from grammatical sexes of any kind is a wonderful relief, but then I don't know any other language whose grammar is so simple and clear as the English. I can tell you, though, that English has its own difficulties for eager students (vocabulary! You have so many words for one and the same thing! And then tenses! In my opinion there are roughly twenty ways of expressing that something will happen in the future...but I'm departing from the topic).

What really irritated me was that some of Twain's points of criticism are simply wrong. In one paragraph he talks for instance about the German habit of over-describing things.

"A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerinn," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described."

Now, first of all the particle to signalise a woman is -in, not -inn (the multitude of spelling mistakes in this short essay makes Twain's authority as a competent judge of the language somewhat less believable). Secondly, "die" means exactly the same as "the", so "die Engländerin" translates literally to "the Englishwoman", which makes it exactly the same as in English. In my opinion it is even easier, because an -in at the end of a word always means that the person is a woman, which avoids a lot of confusion. I can have a male friend, "Freund", and a female friend, "Freundin" and instantly know the difference, whereas when someone talks in English about a friend I am always wondering whether this is a woman or a man.

Then at one point Twain moans about the long German words. It is true, we tend to use only one word when the English use several, but I don't really see why "Unabhängigkeitserklärung" which literally translates to "independencedeclaration" should be so much worse than "declaration of independence". And some of his remarks are nothing but inaccurate: contrary to Twain's claim there is no German word which changes its meaning depending on which syllable is emphasised. Also, I get the impression that he never learned French, which is far, far more intricate and haphazard, since he believes that "a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in 30 hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years".
Obviously I cannot consider myself as gifted, for I have spent the last five years studying French and am nowhere near fluent. 
But who would dare to question Mark Twain's expertise in German, a language he has studied for nine whole weeks?

I have just noticed that this post sounds much harsher than I intended it to be. Who would have thought that? Perhaps I am a tiny little bit proud of my mother tongue after all? Anyway, I admit: German grammar is systemless and this essay really amusing, just don't take it too serious. It is probably more enjoyable and easier to dwell in Twain's dry humour for someone who cannot control the accuracy of all of his critical remarks.

Dienstag, 26. Juni 2012

The Sign of (the?) Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Say the name Sherlock Holmes and anyone who hasn't read the books or watched one of the recent adaptations which have somewhat corrected this image will automatically think of an old-fashioned, serious, brilliant and dignified pipe-smoking gentleman.

This general idea could not be more wrong, and in the second Sherlock Holmes novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wastes no time before showing us how far from a respectable, clever and boring detective his hero is:

The Sign of Four opens with a minute description of Sherlock shooting up cocaine, a habit he has apparently been engaging in for many months. But mind you, as the only consulting detective in the world he is not simply a common drug addict, but takes them when there is no demanding case at hand because he cannot stand "the dull routine of our existence".

I have to admit that I was a bit confused as to the time which had elapsed since the ending of the first novel, because Watson talks about the years he has already lived in Baker Street. Additionally Sherlock and he are on much more intimate terms, so it seems that there was quite a leap in time, but on the other hand they never even allude to another case except for the one featured in A Study in Scarlet.
That being said, except for this little muddle I liked the sequel even more than the first book.
Unlike A Study in Scarlet the focus in this is much more on emotion, and accordingly we see Sherlock wander from the blackest depths of depression, as Watson worriedly puts it, to desperate, restless ecstasy during the case. He is only happy when there is some obscure riddle to solve, and contrary to the first novel I faintly noticed an air of tragedy about him this time. Especially the last lines of the novel left me rather sad. Watson states that everyone got some personal profit out of the case and asks what remains for the only true detective since all the public recognition went to Scotland Yard. The answer is: "For me, there still remains the cocaine-bottle", whereupon Sherlock immediately starts injecting it again.

However, all this emotion must have a good side too, and that is incarnated in John Watson. While he and Sherlock already were good companions in the earlier novel, they are now absolutely heart-warming together: they tease and make fun of eachother and while there are no open signs of affection, there is this short paragraph which might well be my favourite scene in the whole book:

"Look here, Watson; you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa and see if I can put you to sleep.”
He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air–his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me."

Which neatly brings us to the next topic, for Sherlock's client, Miss Mary Morstan is a woman Watson takes particular interest in. His romance with her is very sweet and very kitschy, and I definitely cannot blame Holmes for making fun of them. It is surely good that Watson has found a sensible, loveable woman; sooner or later he would probably go insane with Sherlock as his only companion, but since marrying her means that he will have to move out of Baker Street and leave Sherlock all to himself I'm looking rather melancholy upon the whole affair.

So, I think I've covered everything I wanted to say now, haven't I? Oh no, as usually I forgot the case itself!
The only thing I'm going to tell you about it is that it is very complicated and intricate (which made it a lot of fun) and that there is a long, splendid background story set in India. Also, I have given up faith in Scotland Yard. Obviously London police is a bunch of incompetent wannabes. If there is a seemingly insoluble crime, Sherlock Holmes is clearly the only man to call!

Samstag, 23. Juni 2012

It's not always chocolate: Cravings of the literary sort

Usually I enjoy and cherish reading affectionately. Right now I am having a madly passionate love affair with it. During the last few days all my thoughts were centred on books, posts about books and authors I love, reading plans, movie adaptations and characters I've come to know so well that they sometimes seem more real to me than actual people. Of course I have also been reading and that at a speed which is incredible for me (but would probably still appear lame to everyone else). Perhaps it is because I hardly had any free time to devote to books in May and early June due to my finals, or it is because of the general enthusiasm for the Victorian Celebration and my love for Victorian literature, but fact is that I'm in a wild reading frenzy.

Everyone who reads for pleasure knows that reading one book leads you to others: books which are mentioned or treat a similar subject, books by the same author or from the same period of time, books which you know to have influenced this author, books which you already read and of which you are reminded again because they are written in the same style or feature the same setting or similar characters or simply touch you in the same way. And sometimes when you are reading a book ideas for what to read next drop down like seeds on the fertile ground of your 
mind, and as soon as you give in to one of those ideas, it develops into a full-grow tree; a tree which again immediately produces countless new seeds waiting for you to give them the light and attention they need to become trees of their own.

This is something wonderful because it ensures that once you start reading you cannot stop again and it becomes a passion for life, but at the moment it is driving me crazy. I have simply too many seeds I'm impatient to develop, and with every book I read they multiply again. Then, there are these cravings: out of nothing I am suddenly in the mood to read a certain author or genre or even a special book. Right now it is romance for example. Don't ask me why, but I feel the burning desire to read a really romantic love story, as well as to re-read Jane Eyre. Now, firstly I refuse to re-read a book I read in March. Where is that going to lead? I can't start reading books again after only three months.

Secondly, can I truly afford to read books which I know will lead me far from the path I have chosen? Can I read Gone with the Wind on a pure whim when I originally wanted to devote the month to Dickens, Hardy and some other heavy Victorians?
I am afraid that without discipline I am never going to get anywhere and that means that I have to get a grip on these cravings. It's not that from now on I will be reading on a strict schedule, but after all I want to read those Victorians, I am curious for Oliver Twist and interested in discovering Trollope, even if my mood wants to tell me I'm not.

And hell, yes, the thought that there are more books in the world than I can possibly read in my lifetime freaks me out.

Anyway, perhaps you have noticed that despite my claim to be feverishly reading there have not been a lot of reviews here recently. I have finished both The Sign of Four (the second Sherlock Holmes novel) and The Awful German Language (an essay by Mark Twain which I have waited to read for ages) and I have much to say about them, but somehow I don't want to. While I am enjoying blogging as always, I am just not in the mood to write a proper review. Right now, I only want to read a story and then embrace it within me instead of discussing it as usual. Yes, at the moment I am peculiar in all my reading habits.

How about you, do you experience similar fits of (book-) craziness or am I a hopeless candidate for the closed ward?

Mittwoch, 20. Juni 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This book blew me away. Literally. Whenever I think that I finally know what to expect from a classic, a novel or even an author a book like The Picture of Dorian Gray comes along and changes everything. Reading this felt like spending a night at a glittering feast: the world becomes a haze of elaborate ball gowns, sublime music, exquisite champagne, fascinating people and seductive, dangerous ideas.
To quote the key-word of the novel; reading it was a pleasure and not only an intellectual but a sensuous one, that is probably why I feel unable to write a coherent review. Instead, I will try to record some of my rather intricate thoughts.

The Story

Dorian Gray's story has become such a cliché by now that I won't bother summing it up here. What surprised me, though, is that the story unfolds very slowly, with hardly anything dramatic happening during the first half of the book at all. In fact I got the impression that the plot was nothing but a frame for Wilde's study of his century and his society's moralites with a lot of attention dedicated to chracter development.
A very big subject of the book are sins - after all the infamous name of Dorian Gray has almost become a synonym for a careless and sinful way of living, but the extraordinary thing is that the vast majority of the sins he commits are never really mentioned in the book. As a reader you of course notice that his character is quickly becoming shallowly self-obsessed and ruthless because Dorian starts to choose "beautiful" actions which bring him pleasure over right or kind ones, which is very noticeable in his changing behaviour towards Basil Hallward and Sibyl Vane, but most of his actual sins are never revealed. Basil Hallward lectures Dorian on how immoral he has become and delivers a whole list of people, including Lord Henry's sister, who have come to ruin (several even committing suicide) because of his influence, but what exactly happened to them is never explained. In the afterword of my edition is mentioned that Oscar Wilde once said that "every man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray".

The Language

Wilde's language is a subject all of its own. In dialogue he is extremely witty, apparently never serious and immensely elaborate; in fact his phrasing becomes the more sophisticated the more trivial its subjects are. The conversation scenes reminded me a lot of The Importance of Being Earnest, especially Lord Henry's parts, but Wilde's prose is very different from that. The descriptions and the general style of writing are something to get lost in: they are very visual and again I felt as if they touched me on a deeper level than a merely intellectual one. It is curious, somehow this whole book has evoked in me a bunch of very vague but exciting ideas about what life and what literature should be like. I'm sorry that I'm expressing this so nebulously, but I hardly know myself what I'm meaning! That is also the reason why it took me so long to finally write this post, I already finished The Picture of Dorian Gray a week ago.

 L'Art pour l'art: Aestheticism

However, something I do know is that I find the concept of Aestheticism, of which I was completely unaware until now, a fascinating way of thinking. The idea that sheer beauty is more important than morality, truth, honesty, love, friendship and everything else a society like the Victorian could possible stand for is a daring, but spellbinding one. Despite the fact that I don't regard The Picture of Dorian Gray as an immoral book at all, I can certainly understand why its publication caused such a scandal.
Although I could never imagine to live on the principles of the Aesthetic movement (and I don't really think that anyone completely could) I find it an intriguing gedankenexperiment. I'd love to read more on this subject and would be grateful for recommendations!
The main characters in Wilde's novel seem to regard their lives as works of art and all of their actions simply as small contributions to their grand magnum opus. They themselves become the artists and the objects of art alike, which forces them to centre all their thoughts on beauty and pleasure, a way of thinking that consequently eats away at their humanity. How far this goes is quite shocking, after Sibyl Vane's death Lord Henry states for example that:

“It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such
an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their
absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack
of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us
an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that.
Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of
beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the
whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly
we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the
play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder
of the spectacle enthralls us.”

Ironically the one character in the whole novel to whom this rule does not apply is the only one who creates real art: Basil Hallward. He is an artist and a good person. Somehow I knew from the very beginning that the story could not end well for him. But on the other hand, it does not end well for Dorian either, obviously it does not pay to choose beauty over conscience after all. Although I find it easy to imagine how shocked Victorian society must have been by this "poisonous" novel, I believe that the key to understanding Oscar Wilde at least partly lies in this definition of Lord Henry by Basil Hallward in the first chapter: "You are an extraordinary fellow! You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing."

Mittwoch, 13. Juni 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

"I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever."
In my opinion Oscar Wilde himself would be the only one truly worthy of writing a review about The Importance of Being Earnest. For in this play he works the miracle of writing more than 70 pages and entire dialogues about - in fact - absolutely nothing at all. And how delightful this nothingness is!
Unfortunately, Mr Wilde's services as a critic are currently not at my disposal, so you will have to content yourself with my humble thoughts.

I said the play was about nothing at all, but that is not entirely true: it is a farce built upon the fact that two young gentlemen  (of course dandies, since we are reading Wilde) have both created a fictional alter ego to escape boresome social obligations. There is a lot of spontaneous love and confusion, and the characters are all the very opposite of earnest. This alone, especially if combined with Wilde's almost heavenly wit, would be enough to make a very enjoyable comedy, but the way it mocks Victorian conventions and hypocrisy
makes it downright hilarious.

We read the whole play aloud in English class and not only did every single student love it, but several teachers who heard us suggested that we should perform it on stage. It was amazing: I read the role of Lady Bracknell who is, to put it into Wilde's own words, a real Gorgon:
“Never met such a Gorgon . . . I don't really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.”
Superficially she is the very picture of Victorian respectability, but in fact she satirises London society at least as much as the young men who openly admit how little they think of earnestness. For example, she states that:
"Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago."
Now that I think of it, she is not so very different from my real character at all!
The characters of Jack and Algernon who are, as I have heard is typical for Wilde, the very incarnation of the word dandy, I am glad to have rediscovered in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I will finish soon; especially Algernon reminds me a lot of Lord Henry. They take nothing seriously, except for pleasure.
"I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious."
"Oh, that's nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense."
"Nobody ever does."

Honestly I think that everyone should read this play. It was the first work of Wilde I've ever read and while it is primarily profoundly entertaining, there are many universal truths about society to be found in it. My class has started with An Ideal Husband, so we'll see if he will be able to live up to my expectations a second time, but I am not too worried about that: relying on the words of my teacher, Oscar Wilde probably was the closest to God that ever visited our earth.

Montag, 4. Juni 2012

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

ArthurConanDoyle AStudyInScarlet annual
This book was, apart from a handful of short stories I read as a child, my first adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.It is more than that, though. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are household names even for people who have never read one of their stories nor seen a single movie adaptation. You just know them because they are legendary.
A Study in Scarlet is the beginning of their legend.

The novel is told largely from the reminiscences of a certain John Watson MD and tells the story of his meeting and purely coincidentially becoming roommates with a man called Sherlock Holmes who is introduced to us with the following, extraordinarily encouraging description.
"Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes -- it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge."
I have made the experience that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who love Sherlock Holmes and those who hate him. I readily confess that I certainly belong to the former category.
It may be a little bit due to the (brilliant) BBC adaptation which portrays him as a passionate Byronic Hero, but I think I would have liked him anyway. Yes, he is more than a little socially retarded, but nonetheless brilliant. At the crime scene in A Study in Scarlet he made some deductions which seemed so incredible that I was very inclined to believe he had simply guessed, but I was delivered a plausible explanation for everyone of them. This explanation, however, did not happen until the conclusion during the last few pages, so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and making my own (poor, you wouldn't want to know how poor!) deductions.
Something I like very much about Sherlock is that he is a believable character even though he is so brilliant. He has his very own logic, and his intellectual flaws make it even more authentic:
“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.” 

Sherlock Holmes is certainly one of the most fascinating characters in literature and while his arrogance and emotional distance can be annoying sometimes, his inhumanity is easily endurable because there is another man almost always by his side: John Watson, the very picture of kind-heartedness.
In a way I am even fonder of him than of Sherlock and I cannot help thinking that he may play a much more important role than only that of narrator and sidekick.

Curious as I am to see the famous friendship between these two develop (and heeding the advice of Sherlock creator Steven Moffat who wrote a lovely introduction for my edition) I decided not to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next, as originally planned, but instead The Sign of the Four. 
Mr Moffat claims that one notices the growing of their friendship much better if one reads the stories in the original order of publication. I don't know if that's true, but it cannot hurt to stick to the chronological order, right?

That being said, I was really surprised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's style of writing. It is so straightforward, so clean, so void of lengthy descriptions and so not Victorian. His writing sounds almost modern, which is not bad, but not what I expected at all. The story was absorbing yet not so very extraordinary, but since the focus of the novel is on the introduction of Sherlock Holmes as a character, it was secondary anyway.
When the narration suddenly jumped to the excessive background-story of the murderer halfway through the book I was a little irritated in the beginning, but it was interesting and I quickly began to care for these new characters too. I missed Sherlock and Watson, though. 

I know that many dislike A Study in Scarlet because of the portrayal of Mormons as polygamic, murderous savages, but since I was warned beforehand that Arthur Conan Doyle did not know anything about real Latter Day Saints, I simply regarded his creations as an exotic tribe sprung solely from his imagination.

I am really looking forward to reading more from the master detective. Somehow I'm sensing this wonderful feeling that I have found a new literary friend for life.

Freitag, 1. Juni 2012

Plans for June: A Victorian Celebration

Like every single other person around here on the bloggosphere I am taking part in Allie's Victorian Celebration this June and July (Allie: thanks for hosting by the way!).
I have been looling forward to it for months now, because what could be more awesome than a summer full of Victorian Literature?
Unfortunately I was quite disappointed with the result after having piled up all Victorian books hidden on my shelves: there are only five I haven't read yet! These are pretty basic titles, so please keep in mind that I never consciously read a single classic until last November before laughing at me. Let's start the list with Dickens who is an obvious choice but also an intimate friend of mine:

  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (I am a little afraid of this one because it is one of his best-known works and I usually tend to prefer those books of an author which are not so appreciated in general.)
  • A Study in Scarlet and
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Exciting because I love Sherlock)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (this is technically a re-read because I once read a simplified version, but it had only 70 pages and I don't remember anything except for desperate love)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde  (Surprisingly, I have nothing to say about this one, but I am not especially looking forward to it.)
Additionally I have The Fall of the House of Usher and other Tales by E. A. Poe waiting on my TBR pile, but since some of these tales were written before the Victorian Era it will probably remain there.
I would like to finish all of these titles during the event because I really want to focus on Victorian Literature. If things go very well I will even make a huge Victorian Amazon order and post a new list at the beginning of July.

However, what I will not abandon during the Victorian Celebration is Les Misérables. I am finally on schedule with the readalong again and I am enjoying it. Also, the lovely trailer for the new movie just came out and motivated me extremely. 

Probably I will continue with the Divine Comedy too, so I would like to finish Purgatorio in June. That way I will always have something to turn to when corsets, street children and Victorian psychopaths start getting on my nerves.

Which Victorians have you chosen? Anything else on your nightstand for June?
I hope you all have a lovely month and better weather than in Austria!

Donnerstag, 31. Mai 2012

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno tells the story of Dante's descent to hell and his journey through its nine circles. The book was written at the very beginning of the 14th century and is the first part of the famous Divine Comedy.
It is also the most impressive work of literature I ever read.
"I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightfoward pathway had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing is to say, what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more..."
I will probably not win a prize for originality by stating that Dante's language is absolutely sublime. I am not even a great fan of poetry, but these lines had something to them that made me read on and on, sucking in the colourful images they created. It was very strange, although I am not really religious these words evoked in me the vague feeling of something grand.
What I did not expect though was the vividness of the writing; hell arose before my eyes as if I was wandering through it myself.

Dante's hell is an enourmous creation: diverse and detailed and absolutely terrifying. I can hardly imagine how long the planning phase must have been, for it is thought-out to the smallest detail.
For every sin the souls are punished accordingly, the fortune-tellers for example have to walk with their heads turned backwards because in their lives they tried to see the future when they had no right to.
I did not always agree with Dante's division into circles, for instance I found it unreasonable that fraud is punished more severely than murder and in my opinion some souls, such as astrologers and alchemists, but more than anything the virtuous pagans who committed no other sin than being born before the time of Christianity, ought not to be in hell at all. Also, looking at sins such as greed and anger I could not help asking myself if any of us would not end up in hell.
Those were the moments when I had to remind myself that Dante lived in the Middle Ages and that his view of life was probably completely different from ours. Nonetheless the knowledge that this book determined the human idea of hell for hundreds of years impressed me deeply and never really left me while reading.

A big part of the journey through hell is made up by the stories which the damned souls tell of their lives and crimes. I was astonished that these souls were not invented by Dante, but all either real historic persons or characters from mythology such as Ulysses. The person who is in fact the reason for the whole journey (she sends Virgil to Dante to save him after he had lost the right path) is Beatrice, who died very young and is the object of Dante's eternal love. I cannot wait to finally meet her, but I am afraid she will not turn up until Paradiso.  Whenever someone I knew appeared I was amazed: Sophocles for example, Brutus or Helen of Troy, but there were many Italian noblemen I had never heard of before and although their names were explained in footnotes I think a better knowledge of Italian history would make me appreciate the book more. Another thing that took me by surprise is Dante's criticism of the church; there are more than a handful of popes and bishops suffering in his hell.

However, what surprised me most is how political the Divine Comedy actually is. Obviously Florence was in terrible uproar at that time, with fights between two parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. This conflict is featured prominently, probably because of Dante's strong involvement in it in real life. He was even expelled from Florence, his home which he (and many of the souls in hell) loved dearly and never returned to it until he died.

Did I understand everything I read? Certainly not. There were some lines whose meaning remained a complete mystery for me even though I read an annotated edition and others where I was not sure whether my interpretation was right or utter nonsense. I tried not to worry too much about that though: I know that I probably only understood a small percentage of the Inferno accurately, but I feel that the Divine Comedy is much too multilayered to be fully comprehended after  reading it just once. Most importantly, am enjoying it a lot, so onward, to the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise!

Montag, 28. Mai 2012

Read at once if convenient - If inconvenient read anyway

Almost two years after the original release Austrian television has finally performed the miracle of broadcasting BBC's Sherlock. Since I am really late to jump on the bandwagon (and also because they are exactly what everyone else is feeling) I am going to keep my emotions on the topic short. I have slowly travelled through three mental stages: first, doubt.
I guess this is obvious: when you think of Sherlock Holmes you think of a man brooding with a pipe over pages of handwritten and ink-stained notes, not of a texting guy with nicotine patches. Also, I had read some of the short stories before and always thought that "the Victorian feeling" made up quite a part of their charm.
Needless to say, I was completely wrong. Sherlock still lives, so the modernisation feels like the most natural thing in the world; which brings us to stage two, enthusiasm.
No explanation is necessary. This show is the best I have seen on TV for many, many years.

Unfortunately there is stage three, desperation, lurking in the shadows. The Reichenbach Fall is the last episode left to be broadcasted and then there will be no more Sherlock for at least a year. In addition to the impending break, the reactions I have picked up online regarding the finale of Season Two have been somewhat traumatic. Oh yes, I am frightened. Thank God there is something to cheer me up:
It is about time I seriously started reading Sherlock Holmes! 
My latest acquisitions
In between the books you see a really beautiful  book mark I received from the owner of a bookshop in Grado, the Libreria Dante. He gave it to me when my mama bought a newspaper there and I shot longing glances at an Italian copy of the Divine Comedy. I explained to him in very broken Italian that I would love to read it, whereupon I had to promise him that I would come back and buy it once my Italian was good enough.
 As a substitute for Sherlock on TV and also as part of Allie's Victorian Celebration starting in June, I ordered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and A Study in Scarlet. Isn't the edition amazing? I usually don't like book covers with actors on them, but in Sherlock's case I am overjoyed. Thank you, BBC Books!

Mittwoch, 23. Mai 2012

A Room with a View or Help me!

The rain is pouring down outside my window and there is a blanket wrapped around my legs, next to a cup of hot tea on my desk. I am definitely back from Italy.
The good news is that I enjoyed my little vacation, from midday on it was hot enough to relax on the beach and even go for a swim (a really short one though, in order not to get frostbitten) whereas in the mornings mama and I dawdled through the charming city centre. Unfortunately I somehow managed to forget my camera in the hotel on all of those walks, so you'll have to rely on my word that the historic centre is truly picturesque.
The not so good so good news is that A Room with a View, which I read on the beach, enjoying the most beautiful view possible, left me feeling strangely dissatisfied. I liked it, but by far not as much as I thought I would and, what is worse, not as much as I think I could have.

I really appreciate novels which satirise narrow-minded society and from that point of view Forster didn't disappoint me in the least: I earned more than a few curious looks for chuckling over his glorious humour and chapter titles such as "How Miss Bartlett's Boiler was so tiresome".
However, authors usually have to draw a contrast to funny scenes in their books in order to keep my attention up, but again, I cannot complain of that either. Lacking depth is the last thing you could criticise about A Room with a View. I wholeheartedly agree with the way feminism is treated by Forster and I am actually amazed how he manages to express his disapproval of society's general opinion that:
“It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.”
It is difficult to write a book about gender equality without sounding moralising and boring nowadays and I can only imagine how much harder it must have been a hundred years ago. For that I bow to you, Mr Forster! Oh, and Mr. Emerson is perhaps one of my favourite characters ever; he has the wonderful gift of combining wisdom with humour.

However, despite all the positive aspects I have just mentioned I could not really enjoy reading Forster's best-known work. All the time I had the feeling as if I was missing something, as if an essential part of the book's meaning was escaping me. I sensed that there was much more to it than the simple story of a girl's choosing the unconventional man instead of the one befitting her rank, but I could not quite grasp it. The feeling reminded me a lot of situations when you watch someone whose face you have already seen someplace before, but you cannot remember where, no matter how hard you try and whenever you come close to the solution it slips away from you again.

There was also something else that bothered me: while I really liked most minor characters I did not feel the same for Lucy and George. Not because they were not likeable, but because I felt that except for some scenes, like the one after Lucy fainted from seeing a man being stabbed and during which they both were radiant, I did not really seem to know them. I never got close to them, did not understand them and for most parts of the book they were more or less strangers to me. For example, when George kissed Lucy for the first time I was truly irritated because I did not understand where these feelings came from. Except for the scene mentioned above there never was any sign of his developing any kind of special feelings for Lucy and I could not help the impression that they were only falling in love because the author needed them to as a plot device.

I am definitely going to re-read A Room with a View, but not because I liked it so much. I will read it again in the hope of understanding it better. How about you? In case you have read the book, does my critique make any sense for you? Can you perhaps even help me comprehend and appreciate it to a greater extent?
For one thing is sure: A Room with a View is one of those books I ardently wish I would like more.

Donnerstag, 17. Mai 2012


On the floor next to me is a half-packed suitcase filled with suncreme, swimsuits and my Italian textbook.
I myself am filled with excitement, because despite the fact that it's just a short trip and I will be back Sunday evening, I will still be on the road again and travelling always amazes me.
My mama, my little brother and I are spending the long weekend in Grado, Italy, to take a short break from our lives which have been more than busy recently. Grado is a little town situated on a peninsula of the Adriatic Sea and famous for its beautiful historic centre. It's in the north-east of Italy and only about three hours' drive away from here which is a reason to worry because the weather here is not too fine at the moment. Hopefully it will be better once we're there! Anyway, even if we probably won't get to swim much it will still be fabulous to relax on the beach and enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle.

For my packing (of which a great part still has to be done I'm afraid): I am taking E.M. Forster's A Room with a View with me, because what could be more appropriate than reading the story of a girl touring Italy while you're in Italy? It's my first Forster and I have great expectations, so I hope I won't be disappointed.
Another book I'm bringing I will be basically taking home, for it is The Divine Comedy, Italy's most successful work of literature ever. Contratry to A Room with a View I have already started Dante's magnum opus, in fact I am almost through with Inferno, and it has sparked a desire in me to improve my very, very poor Italian in order to be able to read the original. I am usually not a great fan of poetry, but Dante's language has something to it that makes me turn pages as anxiously as if I were reading a cheap romance. 
Nonetheless, reading about a travel through hell in the sun on the beach surrounded by happy tourists will be an experience all of its own and so I am not sure how much I truly will progress with this one.

I wanted to take Les Misérables with me since I completely neglected it after my disappointment with it in April, but then I decided that it was decidedly too heavy to be carried in my handbag. Instead I have chosen a book which definitely belongs to the "guilty pleasure" category: it's Blood of the Fold by Terry Goodkind and part of his Sword of Truth series. As you may have guessed from the title it is high fantasy, and a very good example of that too. I think after travelling through medieval poetry about the underworld and Forster's social critisism I can afford to delve into a novel full of swordfights, epic magic and forbidden romance.

My open suitcase is starting to alarm me, so I am going to finish packing now. I'll be back Sunday afternoon, hopefully with lots of beautiful memories. How about you? Any holiday plans coming up? Did you read A Room with a View or The Divine Comedy? If yes, did you like it? 
I am wishing you all a nice weekend, whether you're staying a home or not!

Samstag, 12. Mai 2012

The right Book

I am sitting here surrounded by piles of books. There are at least thirty books I haven't read yet stacked on my desk, on my cupboards and even on the floor; they range from Oliver Twist to The Catcher in the Rye and I have bought all of them because I knew I would enjoy reading them. How come then that during the last few days I picked up every single book, started reading it and found not one that appealed to me?
Yesterday I ventured out at my parents' shelves, almost desperate to find a book I would want to read and came across The Divine Comedy there, which instantly fascinated me, so my dilemma is already sorted out, but it left me wondering why some books sometimes just don't feel right.

I think everyone has already experienced that a book which seemed boring or even bad at a certain point in your life turned out to be absolutely amazing and intriguing when you gave it another try some years later, or the other way round. Human beings tend to be only interested in things they can at least remotely relate to and usually we like a book the better the more we can identify with its characters and their situation. A very good example of that is my experience with Jane Eyre, which came just at the right time: for most parts of it Jane is a young woman, strong-willed but socially unskilled and unversed in interpreting her own feelings and those of others. I doubt I would have loved this book so much if I had not been able to relate so completely to her position.
We do not stop to develop and mature until we die, in fact at fifty years we are not even the same persons we were when we were twenty and so it is obvious that one and the same book affects us differently at different stages throughout our lives.

There is more to it, though. A good book creates a certain atmosphere, it evokes a special feeling within us. It has a distinctive ambiance which makes us feel like coming home whenever we turn its pages after having read it once. These feelings are hard to put into words, but I am convinced that every passionate reader understands what I mean. Sometimes a novel fails to captivate us simply because it is not in line with our current mood.
Even the season makes a difference at times, in summer I am usually drawn to other books than in winter.
Another important factor is the amount of concentration we are prepared to spend on a book: now and then we want a light read because we only want to drift with the flow of a story without anylysing too much, but at other times we need something demanding that fully absorbs our concentration.

Not all is lost if we surprisingly dislike a book we expected to love, sometimes it is just that the time is wrong. For now I am content with The Divine Comedy and I know that soon I will again be in the mood to pick up a book I dismissed as boring only yesterday.

Montag, 7. Mai 2012

Norwegian Wood and the Poetry of Life

Ideally the years you spend at university are the best part of your life: you have survived the teenage troubles, you are free from school, you are living on your own for the first time, you are young, life is exciting and the world is only waiting to be conquered by you.
Unfortunately reality tends to differ from the ideal; the lives of young people aren't amazing and carefree, they are imperfect, some less, some more. Toru Watanabe's life certainly belongs to the latter category and Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood is a book about learning to live not only with imperfection, but also with seemingly unbearable tragedy.

The German title of Norwegian Wood is Naokos Lächeln, which means "Naoko's Smile" and the subtitle is "Just a love story". I am really mad at the publisher, because nothing could be less true than reducing this book to a mere love story. Yes, a big part of the novel is devoted to describing the development of Toru's relationships with Naoko and Midori, but the focus lies on another relationship: his relationship with life.
At the beginning of the story in 1969 he is eighteen, he has just moved to Tokyo, but he has no ambitions at all; he is studying, working, moving forward, but he avoids thinking of the future. Toru is barely starting his life and yet he has no dreams left: dreaming has proven too dangerous in a life that can turn against you as quickly as a game of billiards. 
The whole book is drenched with bitter-sweet melancholy, but the journey of Toru's growing-up is also very powerful: he is experiencing so much loss for someone so young, not only the loss of beloved persons but also of his convictions and ideals. He has to accept that sometimes there is no explanation why horrible things happen and that he cannot save anyone, because his love alone is simply not enough.

I devoured all 400 pages on the weekend and loved it. What amazed me most was that although it is a sad book dealing with what is perhaps the most tragic subject ever -suicide- there are a lot of very funny parts. Maybe it should not have surprised me so because after all the great challenge Toru faces throughout the book is mastering the art of staying alive and humour plays an essential role in that.
I was also enchanted by Murakami's style of writing, reading it reminded me a little of dreaming. There is a lot of subtext and much weight on little gestures and symboles. It is hard to explain, but every now and then we have dreams during which we know that we're dreaming, but somehow that doesn't make the dream feel less absorbing or less real. Whenever I opened Norwegian Wood I had a similar feeling.

I was intrigued by all characters, but I found the opposites of Naoko and Midori especially fascinating. At first I thought that Midori was simply a lively and a carefree young girl, whereas Naoko had already lived through great pain, making sadness an unescapable part of her life, but that is not true. Midori has had more than her share in pain too; the difference between the girls lies in their characters and in their decisions.
Midori is able to go on despite all tragedy, she has understood that "the dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living", but Naoko is not. She ultimately chooses death to follow the two people she loved most.
And Toru? Toru chooses Midori even before he hears of Naoko's death. With her he chooses life and the moment he chooses it is the moment he decides to grow-up, because "only the dead stay seventeen forever". Of course that does mean that they live happily ever after, but:
"All of us (by which I mean all of us, both normal and not-so-normal) are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world. We don’t live with the mechanical precision of a bank account or by measuring all our lines and angles with rulers and protractors.”
Without imperfections and irregularities, however painful they may be, there would be no art, no music and no such wonderful books as Norwegian Wood. We all have to come to terms with the fact that the poetry of life sometimes consists of melancholy. Thank God that its other part, like Haruki Murakami's novel, is made up of laughter.