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New job. New book. New mantra…

Firsty, for those of you looking in for a review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters as promised at the end of my last post, well, there has been a change of plan. Rather than a review, this post is more of an update about what’s been going on with my reading life over the past few weeks.

commuter readA little over a month ago I began a new job and happily anticipated poring over the pages of Wives and Daughters during my new rather heftier commute. My intentions were good. After the first couple of weeks of work, it became abundantly clear to me that Wives and Daughters  was not a book I was going to especially enjoy reading. Within two chapters I was forced to acknowledge to myself that I was, well…bored. Never mind, I thought, I’ll soldier on, I’ve done it before with other books. Then my attitude began to shift. This, I think, is where I began to draw a distinction between reading at home in my armchair, and reading at bus stops and on buses. Continue reading

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An uphill struggle…finishing Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt.

Ding dong…the book is read. Yes, I have finally pored my way through Possession‘s final pages. The end, it turned out, was infinitely more readable than the beginning. To continue the metaphor from my previous blog…the light at the end of the tunnel did not go out, but got brighter (hurrah!), although the meandering tunnel was significantly too long.

Indeed, I am happy to say that the story ends well, the plot becomes engrossing and engaging and as a reader you can’t turn the pages fast enough and Byatt deserves praise for this. However, the unrelenting uphill struggle of the novel’s first two hundred pages is hard to forgive or forget. Byatt’s is a brilliant and carefully plotted story, which, in my opinion, is spread far too thinly. As a reader I think we have the right to expect a healthy golden thread of plot and character development throughout every page of a good book, unfortunately Byatt has saved all of her golden thread for Possession‘s conclusion, thus diminishing the chances that her readers may ever last out until the end. I will go so far as to say that, overall, I enjoyed reading Possession, but I say this with a considered and slightly reticent voice. Yes, Byatt rewards her readers with romance, mystery, intrigue, love and loss…but she tempers this by demanding endurance, determination, blind faith and hope – a lot to ask from a first-timer like me.

The story’s themes are clearly stated from the outset…possession and romance; and it is undeniable that Byatt explores them with brilliance. The book addresses possession on every level…whether that be possession of another, possession of belongings, possession of our own destiny, possession of the words we say and write, or even possession of our cultural ancestry. Byatt deftly interweaves the theme of ownership throughout her entire narrative. In fact, Possession put me in mind of a poem (‘To Love is Not to Possess‘ by James Kavanaugh) I read at a friend’s wedding recently which began, ‘To love is not to possess, to own or imprison, nor to lose oneself in another…’ this, I think, encapsulates the lesson Byatt teaches us (perhaps a little more succinctly too, although admittedly with far less storytelling).

Would I recommend this book to others? I’m not sure. To my more literary friends, quite probably (along with a warning of possible boredom at the outset). But what about everyone else? I don’t think this is a book for the mass market. Its long passages of poetry and literary criticism might leave many a reader cold. Its constant allusions to classical myth and legend and its cold and often aloof characters might leave the average warm-blooded reader of the 21st century feeling as though they are being held at arm’s length. It seems to me that Byatt’s publishers have done their darndest to disguise the true nature of what lies within the covers of this book, my edition at least features images of seduction from the film adaptation of the book and proudly displays reviews from mass market publications such as Cosmopolitan magazine (that Legally Blonde favourite) declaring that this book is “a triumphant success on every level” – although, truth be told, Cosmo also describe the book as “massive” and “complex” so perhaps a warning is in there.

I’m glad to have read Possession and equally glad to have finished it. As one of the rules I imposed upon myself when starting this blog was that I wouldn’t allow my fingers to creep back to my old favourites, it has been a real challenge for me to exclusively read Possession for the last couple of months. I have been so tempted to snatch Harry Potter or Tolkien off the bookshelf, but I have resisted. This book has undoubtedly lived up to its name, it has possessed my reading self for far longer than it deserved to. Whether this be my own fault for procrastinating (carrying the book around with me like a great white elephant in the room, spying it out of the corner of my eye and thinking ‘oh God, I really should try to read more of that…maybe I’ll just sort out my tax rebate first’ – I kid you not) or maybe the fault lies with the book itself, who knows. All I can say it this, a weight has lifted from my shoulders…and normally I mourn a recently finished book, like the loss of an old friend. Not so with Possession, I feel relieved.

Feeling slightly scarred by my recent experiences, I have opted for a shorter book next time, so that any pain it inflicts may be short-lived. I move on to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

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Thoroughly unromanced…reading Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt.

They say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’…I wish I could say the last month of reading had soared past me, it has not. I have continued reading, albeit at the pace of a wounded snail – and yet I have not finished. This, I fear, is a book that could cure a bibliophile, and yet it is by no means a ‘bad book’.

Possession: A Romance trips along, almost blithely unaware of its reader. It makes no allowances for the less literary reader, it makes no apology for its hearty indulgence in all things academic, it is, one might argue, rather impressed by itself. But am I impressed? On the whole, no; although Byatt scatters just enough sparks of interest to keep me grudgingly turning the pages. Like a loved one who persuades you to try something you never wanted to, this book calls you on, assuring you that there’s something coming that’ll make all of this worthwhile…I only hope that’s real light I can see at the end of the metaphorical tunnel and not a bloody flame that Byatt will stamp out in the book’s final pages.

The book’s title purports it to be a romance, but are romance and love the same thing? I presumed so at the outset, but am beginning to question whether Byatt has chosen the word romance carefully and cunningly. So far, I have seen some very two-dimensional people profess feelings I am not convinced they feel. That is to say, I find their romance  unconvincing. This is not love as I know it, in fact I would go so far as to say that if it’s love you’re looking for I’d stick to Katie Fforde. At least you might find yourself vaguely able to relate to the characters, even if they do live in a smiley marshmallow world full of happy endings.

That brings me neatly to the topic of endings…the only thing I don’t know about this book…how will it end? I have my suspicions…I hope to be proved wrong. Currently my vision is this…that as I reach the novel’s end the light from Byatt’s flame will begin to die out, the sparks will cease to light the tunnel and I will find myself romanced by an author who holds in her possession a month (maybe two?) of my life. A month where I could quite probably have read every Katie Fforde novel ever published and thus be floating cosily along in a marshmallow bubble. My question is this…is it better to feel sick having devoured too many of Fforde’s sweet pages or to feel bitter having repeatedly forced Byatt down your throat?

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A slow, but promising start…beginning Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt.

Well, I’ve made a start on Possession, albeit a very slow one. I’ve found the book rather hard to ‘get into’, not helped of course by my being totally shattered after going back to full-time work.

It’s an odd opening to a novel, and a very literary and academic opening. Considering I’ve got an English degree and felt a tad ignorant when faced with all the literary references and academia cited, I’d imagine someone without said degree would feel more than a little lost. The characters so far all seem a little stuffy and, dare I say it (again!) rather self-absorbed, although judging by the reviews quoted on the cover and the all-round success of the book, I’m assuming the somewhat hard and superior exteriors of the characters are more easily penetrated as the story continues.

As I’ve said above, I’m ashamed and sorry to say that my reading so far has been of a plodding and lack-lustre quality; not helped my state of tiredness, and general inability to concentrate on anything requiring more than ten per cent of my sleep-craving brain. Although, as I read, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the story is starting to stick to my mind – I find myself thinking about it while I wait for the kettle to boil, or while I wash my hair…this must, I think, be a good sign.

And so I read on…a slow, but promising start.

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