Readathon wrap-up and #colourmyshelf

Well, I made the whole 24 hours (more-or-less… I had a little accidental nap around the 4pm mark—which was about 15 hours in—and woke up with my face squashing The Strangler Vine, which is unfortunate; before that, it had been easily one of the most beautiful books on my shelf), so I have a little bit more to say about what I read:

1) Finished The Strangler Vine, which I continued to really enjoy. I think that the reviews and blurb calling it a ‘romp’ were a bit inaccurate; to me, it seemed almost more of a bildungsroman, with the quality of the character development far outstripping the niceties of the plot—but more of that in my proper review and discussion, which will be up shortly.

2) Also, I finally read The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean, which has been on my TBR since it was released when I was, oh, eleven or twelve, maybe? Honestly, I really didn’t enjoy it much. I don’t want to write a proper review, since I’m aware of the fact that I read it after I’d been reading for twenty hours straight and my perspective might have been skewed as a result. A quick summary, though: Haoyou is a twelve-year-old boy living in a poor Chinese family when China was ruled by the Kublai Khan. After his father dies, he leaves town with a circus troupe and rides kites for the benefit of the crowds.

I will say that I think it was hampered by the first person narrative. McCaughrean discusses a lot of important things that I think should be discussed in children’s literature: child abuse, domestic violence, gender dynamics. I even think that she discusses them in the kind of way that is appropriate when trying to talk about these things with children. It’s the kind of book that I can see a worthy, Guardian-reading, lentil-cooking parent reading with a child, and working through the issues; it’s very much a book-club kind of book. However, reading it alone, without having a structure with which to ask those questions, is a less satisfying experience. It’s clear to an adult reading the book that many aspects of the cultural set-up in ancient China are troubling to modern eyes, and it’s also clear that McCaughrean is not condoning these things in any way. The problem is that Haoyou is such an accurately-realised product of those times: as a working-class, uneducated boy, growing up in an environment when women were property and children were a nuisance, he unconsciously echoes those attitudes and values constantly. The dismissive way he speaks of and corrects his cousin, Mipeng, even though she is a grown woman and he is a twelve-year-old boy, is very telling. It also doesn’t seem that he ever entirely learns that this is an unacceptable way to think about women, even though other characters occasionally demonstrate other attitudes.

The same goes for the financial and emotional abuse perpetrated on Haoyou and his mother throughout the novel by the family patriarch: although these issues are slightly resolved in the closing two or three pages of the novel, there isn’t really sufficient closure, given that this book is aimed at children and some quite serious issues have been raised. Haoyou’s lack of education and the ingrained customs of his family may well account for his unquestioning nature and acceptance of the world around him, but it also makes him an unsatisfying narrator. I wanted to see more character development in him.

Well, that was my readathon! I think I read about 1200 pages in 24 hours. Not bad, really, and overall I very much enjoyed the experience. However, if I am to do it again, I’d like to convince a crazy friend or two to embark on it with me in the flesh. I realised, about 14 hours in, that I was mostly doing the readathon to distract myself from the fact that I was lonely and bored on a Saturday, with nothing to do except go (voluntarily) into work. Doing something as solitary as reading (even with all the wonderful online support) to distract myself from the fact that I am by myself is actually a good way for me to make myself feel more lonely, not less. I would happily participate again, but I would want to have a friend with me some of the time to remind me of all the excellent IRL friends I have. I know a lot of people are very happy with internet friends, and I’m not knocking that at all, but sometimes I need people to be in the flesh, in my living room, drinking tea and arguing loudly about metaphor. This, I think, is a useful thing to learn.

Also, next time I would definitely plan in advance. I would allow myself 24 hours off the diet and prepare delicious baked goods in advance in case of tiredness. Even more of a reason to make it a readathon party, I guess!

 

(&, briefly, a footnote re: ‘#colourmyshelf’ and the BookCon debacle)

On an entirely different note, I’m aware of the issues that have sprung up around BookCon the past week or so. (If you aren’t, I suggest starting with this excellent post by BookRiot, and then following their coverage of it so far). One of the things that struck me was the comment that we, as readers, also need to demand fiction by authors of all creeds and colours—otherwise profit-driven publishers will have no reason to publish books by people of colour. Reading the coverage made me think about my reading habits. I went through my ‘read’ and ‘to-read’ lists on Goodreads with a fine toothcomb, and was surprised and upset to find that there are only a few books on there by non-white authors. I had no idea that I was part of the problem. With this in mind, I’ve bumped the few books that were on my to-read list a lot closer to the top (I have wanted to read Persepolis for years, for example, and never got round to it). I’m also on the hunt for good #colourmyshelf recommendations. I had a look on twitter but all the recommendations I could find were for steampunk, which is really not my genre at all. Any suggestions? Now that I’m aware of the problem, I can take a (small) step towards fixing it.

Readathon prep, TBR & updates

So, having found out that all the computers at work are down tomorrow, and that I therefore cannot adhere to my usual postgraduate student hours (i.e. all the hours), and having also been informed (by the @readathon people on Twitter, no less) that I can start early & finish early, I have decided that I will attempt the full 24 hours. Why not? Instead of starting at 1pm, however, I will be starting at 1am and reading through to 1am–that way I still get to keep one day of my weekend for things outside of my flat, instead of the readathon spilling over into my Sunday–but I also overlap with the official readathon for 12 hours, so I get to join in all the fun and games! 🙂

In light of this, I’ve made my TBR list a bit more ambitious:

Continue reading

Dewey’s 24-hour readathon

Entirely at the last minute, and after the closing date for officially signing up, I’ve decided to attempt Dewey’s 24-hour readathon this Saturday. In the UK, the times are 1pm-1pm, and at present I’m not sure how much of the time I will spend reading (and how much will be spent frantically rewriting a research proposal, since, you know, day job & all that). I do have some coffee sitting in my fridge that advertises itself, promisingly, as HIGH CAFFEINE, so who knows? Maybe I’ll get the proposal written before 1pm and then I’ll have the very great pleasure of sitting and reading for hours on end. At present, a rough TBR for the day looks like this:

1) Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (an old favourite that I’m looking for an excuse to reread)
2) The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean (which has been on my TBR  forever)
3) Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead
4) The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

I seriously doubt that I could read all of those in 24 hours–not thoroughly enough to enjoy them, at any rate–and I might change my mind or pick up a couple of books in a charity shop that I’d rather read. Even so, it’s nice to have a plan! Let me know if you are also planning on participating and I can come and cheer on your blog 🙂

 

EDIT: Belatedly realised that I should probably include the link for the readathon. That would be helpful, right? Here it is.

FURTHER EDIT: Realised that 1pm-1am, which is what I initially had listed, is not actually 24 hours but 12. I did wonder why it sounded relatively. I definitely won’t be doing 1pm-1pm because I have church on Sunday morning, but I will try and do as much as I can. Also, I have learnt that I definitely shouldn’t make blog posts on the fly because I will end up making two edits within five minutes.

Agnes Grey

Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Brontë
Rating: 3/5

First Classics Club review!

 

I finished Agnes Grey a month ago, and it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to write this review. Although I took stacks of notes when I was reading, I’ve found it difficult to format them into a coherent structure. This is because it ended up becoming an unexpectedly personal read for me. It’s always harder for me to talk about the things that have made me feel rather than think (or, in this case, both at the same time). From reviews I’d glanced at beforehand, I was expecting a less well-realised Jane Eyre; this was not at all what I encountered. A quick (spoiler-free) synopsis, and then I’ll explain what I mean. The titular character, who grew up in a happy family that is now in financial difficulties, goes off to work as a governess, make her way in the world, find herself etc. She works for two different families, and midway through the novel, as ever, a man enters, stage left, and complicates things.

The problem with the novel, I think, is that the author tries to address too many topics. At the time, she did not have the maturity as a writer to do so (though she certainly developed it later: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of the most complex and beautiful novels I have ever read), and at times the narrative feels episodic rather than continuous. This is particularly the case with Agnes’ experience with the first family. A great many words are invested in describing the anecdotes and personalities related to those three children, so you rather expect that aspect of the story to have some relevance to the bulk of the novel—whether in the format of a recurrent villain, or a piece of crucial character development, or some other facet—but it never does. It just feels rather tacked on at the start. Because there is no resolution of the issues raised in that section, and no continuing thread of any kind that runs throughout the novel, it feels rather unsatisfying. Every imaginable social theme, from poverty and ill health through to education and parental disengagement, has a cameo; unfortunately, they are each picked up briefly, toyed with, and discarded, never to be seen again.  For example, the conflict Agnes faces when asked to make the first set of children behave themselves and learn, without recourse to any kind of discipline, is reminiscent of the challenge now being faced by teachers throughout the UK: essentially having to parent the children in their classes themselves, with access to none of the disciplinary measures used by parents, all the while having to force some kind of education in around the edges. Had this theme been properly addressed by Agnes’ narrative or actions, had it been dealt with throughout the novel, it would have been a compelling read. Unfortunately, although the author describes the situation in great detail, it comes across as more of a whinge than a plot point, something which could be said about a great deal of the book.

Of course, this raises the other issue. The one consistent strain that runs throughout the novel is Agnes’ character. There is no development, very limited self-insight on the occasions when she is wrong, and constant judgement of the other characters. Agnes is self-pitying, self-righteous, and blind to her own flaws. There’s nothing wrong with a heroine starting out that way, but for her to remain stuck in that rut for the entirety of the book is frustrating. Perfect people are as annoying in literature as they are in real life—and, since the narrative is first-person, there is no escaping her observations about everything and everyone. Although I’m not particularly an Austen fan, I found it hard to avoid comparisons with Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet—both of whom begin as judgemental characters and develop beyond that. Moreover, the two Austen heroines both have qualities—kind-heartedness and wit, respectively—that muddle together with their flaws and turn them into believable, well-rounded characters. Much of what Agnes says and does is from a sense of duty, rather than being derived from her own personal traits, which means that she often falls flat at the times when she should be most relatable: when she is isolated and alone, friendless and bullied, I tried to feel sorry for her—but mostly I just wanted her to stop whining.

This is not always the case, however. The thing that sticks with me most vividly is the novel’s brutal and unrelenting depiction of unrequited love—or, at least, unrealised love. Specifically, it’s the type of unrequited love that happens when you fall in love with someone who definitely doesn’t love you back, except that you’re not quite positive, and you’re certainly far too shy to actually ask. It is that very particular type of anguish that comes from being simultaneously unable to hope and unable to stop hoping—even though the hope only aggravates the pain of the hopelessness. In Agnes’ narration, this is almost more of an internal dialogue than an internal monologue—which is a familiar feeling for me, as, I imagine, for many people. That tension was so effectively created that I had to pause halfway through the novel and read the spoilers for the end, just so that I knew what to expect either way. Really, I rooted for that relationship more than I’ve rooted for a fictional romance since I was about sixteen—not only because I liked the participants, but because the atmosphere of uncertainty was so painfully relatable. She writes melodramatic poetry, which she shares with the reader; she finds herself, to her own great irritation, staring into the mirror and cataloguing her aesthetic quirks and faults; her mood swings from high to low to high with pendulous reliability, sometimes within the same sentence. She refers to her inability to stop thinking about Edward Weston as ‘painful, troubled pleasure, too near akin to anguish’, and it’s impossible for me not to feel sympathy for her when she pleads within herself for permission to think about him:

 

“Yes, at least, they could not deprive me of that: I could think of him day and night; and I could feel that he was worthy to be thought of. Nobody knew him as I did; nobody could appreciate him as I did; nobody could love him as I—could, if I might: but there was the evil. What business had I to think so much of one that never thought of me? Was it not foolish? Was it not wrong? Yet, if I found such deep delight in thinking of him, and if I kept those thoughts to myself, and troubled no-one else with them, where was the harm of it? I would ask myself. And such reasoning prevented me from making any sufficient effort to shake off my fetters.” –Ch 17 (Confessions).

 

There are other aspects of the book that struck a chord. Although Agnes’ character certainly left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed the way that her relationship with God was portrayed. Her friendship with Mr Weston was formed as he read passages from the Bible to an elderly woman with poor health, and reassured her of God’s love whilst she was in a dark place. I know a lot of people have criticised Agnes’ and Edward’s interactions with Nancy Brown as ‘sermonising’, but I felt that those passages reflected better on Agnes than anything else in the book—it’s the only time when she actually tries to empathise with someone else, really genuinely tries to improve someone’s life out of love rather than duty—and it’s that empathy on which the connection between Edward Weston and Agnes is founded. Perhaps that is why, for others, the romance in the book felt lacklustre, while for me it was definitely lustrous.

In short—Agnes Grey is a good book with plenty of problems. If it didn’t have the name ‘Brontë’ on the front cover, maybe we’d all be a bit more forgiving, myself included. As it is, I do wish that Anne had let Agnes grow, just a little bit—but I’m still glad she wrote it.