Category Archives: Back to the Classics Challenge

Deception and delusion…reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

My Cousin RachelSince beginning In my good books… Daphne du Maurier has been something of a discovery for me. I’d never read anything by du Maurier until a couple of years ago. Since then I have read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and now My Cousin Rachel. Du Maurier is certainly a master of the mystery genre and crafts suspense, fear and foreboding with an expert hand. When I chose to read My Cousin Rachel I anticipated a well-plotted narrative, with thrilling characters and chilling intrigue…I was not disappointed.

My Cousin Rachel is perhaps not as fearsome as Jamaica Inn and maybe not as chilling as Rebecca, but it does have something special. The story is certainly a mysterious one and the eponymous Rachel presents an interesting heroine-villain. Du Maurier’s story is very much a psychological mystery. It deftly explores the themes of suspicion and fear and the ways in which these emotions drive and inhibit people.

As a reader we are always kept wondering…something du Maurier is adept at. We never quite know if her characters are suffering from My cousin racheldelusion and paranoia or whether their sinister suspicions will come to be founded. The book was published in 1951, although the story’s setting is a period one, taking place in the 19th century and (as in Jamaica Inn) the period and the rugged rural isolation of its Cornish setting provides My Cousin Rachel with a sort of eerie isolation. Du Maurier’s choice of this isolated setting perfectly complements the feelings of jealousy and resentment that her characters start to feel. Any intruders into the remote landscape are to be examined and their motives evaluated. This makes for a real psychological experiment and encourages you, the reader, to evaluate the characters motives and actions with a suspicion you may have otherwise disregarded.

my cousin rachelMy Cousin Rachel is also the first novel I have read by du Maurier which is narrated from a male perspective. Something of an Othello, her narrative voice is that of Philip Ashley, a young and somewhat naive young man who suddenly finds himself with far more power and responsibility than his life has prepared him for. Du Maurier also makes clever use of first-person narration, only allowing her readers to glimpse the world through Philip’s eyes. We are blinded by his jealousy and fears, and, as such, must judge the events transpiring with the eyes of a discerning detective – trying to piece together the truth from the somewhat distorted vision we are presented with.

Where Rachel herself is concerned she is always something of an enigma. We never quite get close enough to see her as she really is. The my cousin rachelreader’s vision is always distorted either by Philip’s emotions, Rachel’s conflicting actions, others’ opinions of her or, indeed, her very nature which seems to be to deflect and evade. Even at the novel’s conclusion the true character of Rachel hangs over the narrative like a giant pulsing question mark, what do we actually know about the enigmatic cousin Rachel?

I enjoyed reading My Cousin Rachel, its strong elements of intrigue and mystery certainly keep your interest peaked. As is usual with du Maurier, the writing style is simple and effective and the first-person narration is delivered with skill and careful manipulation.

My cousin rachelI know I will return to Daphne du Maurier as she has yet to disappoint me. I wholeheartedly recommend My Cousin Rachel, especially to those who have enjoyed du Maurier’s other books. A perfect mid-point between Rebecca and Jamaica InnMy Cousin Rachel strikes that ideal balance of an engaging plot, believable characters and plausible, evenly-spread mystery.

challenge 12I read My Cousin Rachel as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge‘ in the category of ‘Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction‘. This is my final book which completes my entry into the Classics Challenge – just by the skin of my teeth, I’ve made the deadline. I have thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge and feel it has really helped me to see my way through the year’s reading. There have been real highs and lows to my reading this year, from the highs of Love in a Cold Climate and my joyful re-reading of Pride and Prejudice  to a new-found favourite in North and South…I have also plummeted to the depths of despair in this year’s reading and teetered on the brink of defeat with If on a Winter’s Night a TravellerI have suffered indifference where The Great Gatsby is concerned and finally have rounded off my year with an enjoyable mystery. My year certainly proves to me that no writer or book can be all things to all men and that, as a reader, it is important to keep as open a mind as possible and take some risks, even though it is inevitable that not all will pay off.

I’m going to take a break from reading challenges now and read some of those books that have been piling up as I’ve striven to meet the requirements of the Classics Challenge. My first step into the uncategorized will be a book that has inhabited my bookshelf, unread, for far too long…Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.

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Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Daphne Du Maurier, Fiction, Novel

An autopsy on literature…reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino.

Hooray! I have FINALLY finished reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, admittedly it has almost put me off reading forever, but I have just about survived until the book’s final pages. For a novel which is completely saturated with the themes of writing and reading…this book has done little to promote either of its themes to me. Calvino’s novel is a thorough examination of the acts of writing and reading, word by word, piece by piece Calvino analyses the part of the writer and the reader as if he were carrying out some sort of autopsy on literature itself. Clever?…this book certainly is. Interesting?…it is this also. Entertaining?…at first perhaps. Enjoyable?…it is not.

As a student of literature and an, at times, wannabe-writer I anticipated myself devouring this book quickly, enjoying Calvino’s well-thought out and insightful take on storytelling. I read the book’s opening pages feeling thoroughly entertained, smiling wryly at Calvino’s literary devices and omnipotent manipulation of his readers. However, as I later discovered, you can have too much – far too much – of a good thing. I won’t say too much about the storyline (well, storylines) of the book, but suffice to say that within Calvino’s book are the openings of ten different novels. Yes, you heard. The openings…nothing more. Calvino uses the openings of different books to cleverly depict how an author ‘reels-in’ his reader. He deftly captures those initial moments when one begins reading a new book…the introduction of setting and characters…the style of narration…and he does this all with a knowing wink to you, his reader. See what I’m doing? Calvino taunts. I’m reeling you in again. A new story all over again. Endless beginnings, ceaseless manipulation. Eventually you begin to wonder if it is in fact the themes of writing and reading that Calvino is manipulating or, rather, whether it is you who he has manipulated all along.

I found this novel very interesting and immeasurably frustrating…probably just what Calvino intended me to feel. He very much appeared to me as a God-like figure, looming overhead…giggling sadistically as I became increasingly irritated by his work. I frequently questioned my own weakness….was I being childish in getting annoyed by such an obvious trap? All the signs were there, from the novel’s opening pages Calvino was perfectly upfront with me, writing, “…the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky…” and, “he [Calvino] is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognise him as himself.” He told me that in choosing this book I might find myself unlucky, he warned me that he is an author famed for changeability. If only I had taken these statements more seriously.

As I have already mentioned, I did not enjoy reading this book. It is probably one of the least rewarding books I have ever read in terms of enjoyment. Perhaps if I had approached this book as an academic experiment, an intellectual in-joke, perhaps then I would have saved myself a lot of frustration. Sadly, I did not. I approached this book as I approach all other works of fiction; but while this book is about fiction, I’m not entirely convinced that the book itself is a work of fiction. It is more of a high-brow examination of the relationship shared by writer and reader. Don’t get me wrong, this book is interesting in that it cleverly analyses the themes of writing and reading not only examining its themes on the page, but also drawing you, the reader, into the investigation as some sort of three-dimensional guinea-pig.

I will not be reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller again and would not really recommend it to the casual reader. To me, it is a text that only has much to offer in an academic setting…to students of literature. I believe that an academic library shelf is the only possible, and deserved, resting place for this novel. The irony of this is not lost on me…now it is my turn to look upon Calvino’s novel with a tiny sadistic smile.

I read this book as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Classic that has been translated from its original language’. I move on to ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier.

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Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Fiction, Italo Calvino

A mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes…reading Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.

I have been intending to read Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate for some time, way back last November I read The Pursuit of Love  – the first of Mitford’s three ‘companion novels’ – Love in a Cold Climate is the second of the three. The three novels are by no means sequels and are not written chronologically. In fact, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate run almost concurrently. Although the narrator is the same, Love in a Cold Climate tells a different story to The Pursuit of Love. Fanny Logan remains our constant, our narrator. In The Pursuit of Love Fanny tells the story of her cousin, Linda, and her quest to find love; whereas in Love in a Cold Climate Fanny tells the story of her friend Polly and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore.

Love, as ever, remains Mitford’s central theme…whether or not her characters find it is, indeed, another matter. In fact, Mitford’s novels are ostensibly about romantic love and the search for a spouse or lover, but it is her depiction of love in its other forms that is perhaps more insightful. Mitford has a real knack for capturing families, in particular the wealthy upper-class families that inhabit her stories. Even for someone far removed from such a society, the relationships Mitford draws are recognisable and parallels are easily drawn. Families, whatever their wealth or social status, are…families. There will always be disagreements, idiosyncracies, disappointments and love. It is these aspects of love that Mitford so lovingly portrays.

Love in a Cold Climate is a story about the difference between infatuation and love. Time, as ever, proves to be the test. The loves and longings we carry through adolescence are not the loves of the real world and Love in a Cold Climate shows this. It also shows that as we become older we learn to love in many different ways. Love, in Mitford’s novels, does not come in one simple form, but rather layers itself through the lives of her characters. Each of Mitford’s characters is touched by love, whether they are the object of it or not.

As with The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate holds many gems amongst its characters. The inimitable Uncle Matthew is still present, but I’ll spare you my ravings this time. Indeed, Love in a Cold Climate introduces us to other well-drawn, witty and comical characters. Cedric is a new addition, and an amusing one at that. His peculiar mix of pomposity and sincerity is initially confusing, but as you come to understand him better, and as he stands the test of loyalty and of time you come to appreciate Cedric. Reading Love in Cold Climate is certainly akin to  immersing oneself in a pool of gentrified eccentricity… a mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes… but to read it is also to bathe in the comforting world of family and its lifelong loves.

Nancy Mitford

I’ve enjoyed reading Love in a Cold Climate, although I would urge you to  read The Pursuit of Love first. The landscape of Love in a Cold Climate is much richer for having read The Pursuit of Love  and I think I would have found the novel far less enjoyable had I not done so. There is a final novel to complete the trio, The Blessing is Mitford’s end to the three ‘companion novels’ and I hold a secret (well, not-so-secret now) hope that it might tell the story of Fanny herself and that Mitford’s readers will be treated to the complete story of Fanny’s life and not just the tit-bits we scrabble to pick up through our reading of the first two novels. I intend to read it, although perhaps, not immediately. I’ll save it and indulge myself in the not too far distant future.

I’ve grown fond of Nancy Mitford and her characters. They allow a snapshot into another world, a world of aristocracy and wealth. It’s easy to imagine that Mitford’s readers could come to resent the characters they find on her pages, but no, there is something so endearing and loveable about the way Mitford depicts them that it’d be hard not to love them. In particular, Fanny, and  her cousins the Radletts, whose wacky way of life and quirky wit quickly cause you to develop a fond attachment to them. You don’t forget them in a hurry and returning to read about them again after months apart was very much like stepping into a room of extended family who you have not seen for a while…faults and foibles abound, but it is these very things which you soon come to love.

“You’ve no idea how long life goes on and how many, many changes it brings. Young people seem to imagine that it’s over in a flash, that they do this thing, or that thing, and then die, but I can assure you they are quite wrong.”

Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

I read Love in a Cold Climate as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Classic Romance’. I move on to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller  by Italo Calvino

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Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Fiction, Nancy Mitford, Novel

A fine, stout love…reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

If you have visited In my good books… before then it’s likely you’ll be aware of my love affair with Jane Austen and, more specifically, Pride and Prejudice. I’m well aware that many people consider a woman who likes Jane Austen to be something of a cliché, and I am subsequently conscious of the fact that my owning up to it may cause people to form certain judgements about me. I’m not quite sure when confessing to liking Austen made you a hopeless romantic who must, without exception, be neurotically in love with Mr Darcy, but that is the reaction I have frequently encountered. It’s my opinion that Colin Firth and Bridget Jones probably have a lot to answer for.

Most little girls fall in love with ponies or pop stars…for me it was Elizabeth Bennet. I read Pride and Prejudice at a comparatively young age and it was love-at-first-page. Not only did I find a heroine to look up to, but I also encountered some of the most enjoyable prose I have ever read. I have subsequently lost count of the number of times I have read Pride and Prejudice; a re-reader by nature, my copy of Pride and Prejudice has never been left on the bookshelf for a whole year.

Jane Austen has been a good teacher. She has taught me to value good grammar. She has widened my vocabulary. She has increased my love of reading. She has given me a greater appreciation of people and how their minds work. She has taught me to pay close attention to what others say and what they do (and what they don’t say and do). She has taught me that love comes in many forms and is never simple. She has helped me to understand the importance of responsibility. Above all… “which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier”… she has taught me that people have within them the capacity to change, and that it is within our power to determine the nature of that change.

Pride and Prejudice is a story about judgement. The novel primarily addresses the judgements we make about others but also dwells on the ways in which we see and judge ourselves. Austen’s novel is deftly littered with ‘clues’ and ‘giveaways’ which skilfully denote the true nature of her characters. There are many examples of characters saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite…Wickham’s avoidance of the Netherfield ball, Mr Bennet’s proclamation that Wickham and Lydia will never be admitted to Longbourn and Lady Catherine’s declaration that she would have been a proficient piano player. Darcy, by contrast, is held up as that rare example…someone whose bark is worse than their bite…he may speak rudely, but his actions reveal him to be a better person than he appears. He asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield ball, he respects and likes Mr and Mrs Gardiner, he confesses his deceptions to Bingley, and he loves Elizabeth.

If Pride and Prejudice was merely a plainly written story, its engaging plot and endearing characters would make it eminently readable; but, as it is, Austen’s style of writing renders Pride and Prejudice unique. I’ve always felt that Austen’s writing in general, but Pride and Prejudice especially, has a distinctive rhythm, a beat which I have never encountered in any other book. Right from the outset that immortal line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” carries that unique rhythm and bounce. Austen’s narrator is also no babysitter. Austen never spoon-feeds her readers telling them what to notice when, or pointing out character’s errors of judgement – it is up to the individual reader to notice and understand the events and conversations taking place.

I cannot let this review pass without paying homage to Austen’s characters, they truly are expertly and lovingly (or, in some cases, loathingly) written. Like Austen’s other novels, Pride and Prejudice has some real gems. Take, for example, Mr Collins, who never fails to make me smile. He is the perfect mix of obsequiousness and absurdity – he is…funny. Indeed, those who have never read Pride and Prejudice could be forgiven for imagining it to simply be a romance about a rude man, a few ball gowns and some big houses – what they miss is the fact that Pride and Prejudice is genuinely funny, full of intrigue and immeasurably witty. It frequently makes me laugh out loud.

Lastly I must mention the inimitable Elizabeth Bennet. No other heroine, or perhaps real woman, will ever live up to her. She has spoilt me forever. I hungrily turn the pages of each new book that I read, searching for another Elizabeth – another woman with her wit, her self-conviction, and her teasing manners – I have not found one. Although, she is by no means perfect, Elizabeth is never idle in her quest to better understand herself. Throughout Pride and Prejudice we see her finding out new self-truths and learning from her mistakes, bettering herself. With every read, Elizabeth makes me more determined to be sure of myself, speak my mind and enjoy what life offers me. Austen does not suffer wallow-ers gladly.

If you have not read Pride and Prejudice I urge you to do so. I believe it is timeless, and that if you take the time to penetrate what could, to some, seem like wordy 19th century prose then the rewards are endless. At the end of my rather battered Penguin Classic comes the ‘Notes’ section of the book, it states, “It is perhaps worth commenting on just how little requires, or would profit from, annotation in this book” – although published nearly two hundred years ago Austen’s novel still only requires four footnotes to aid the modern reader – there are not many books that could boast that. Some might say this is because Austen’s novels are inward-looking family narratives not concerned with the world outside and this is undeniable, however, if a novel can teach you about what governs our actions as human beings and teach us how to examine our own faults, then I find it hard to acknowledge it as introverted.

Put simply, I love Pride and Prejudice, ardently, and always will.

“Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.”

I read this book as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Re-read a Classic’.

Having earlier reviewed Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love, I move on to its companion novel Love in a Cold Climate.

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Filed under 19th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Fiction, Jane Austen, Novel