Tea and Books & This Isn't Fiction Reading Challenges

These two challenges were hosted in 2013 by Birgit at The Book Garden.

Tea & Books challenge 2013The Tea and Books Challenge was to read Books over 650 pages. I was aiming to read 4 Books for the Berry Tea Devotee Level.

I reached my target and continued to the next level, reading a total of 6 books for the Earl Grey Tea Aficionardo Level.

I read:

  1. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang €“ finished reading 12 January 2013 (720 pages)
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver €“ finished reading 1 February 2013 (670 pages)
  3. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton €“ finished reading 7 April 2013 (670 pages)
  4. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens €“ finished reading 29 June 2013 (845 pages estimated, as I read an e-book that didn’t have page numbers)
  5. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett €“ finished reading 30 August 2013 (1,076 pages)
  6. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell €“ finished reading 20 November 2013 (959 pages

For the This Isn’t Fiction Reading Challenge (ie reading non fiction) there were four Non Fictionlevels to aim for. I nearly made it to Elementary School:

  • 5 Books – Kindergarden
  • 10 Books – Elementary School
  • 15 Books – High School
  • 20 or more Books – College

Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts

Gone with the wind 001Yesterday I finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone With The Wind. I loved it. When I started it I decided that I wouldn’t take any notes as I read and neither would I mark any passages. I just wanted the pure reading experience, reading to get immersed in the story and Margaret Mitchell was a superb storyteller. There are parts full of description that enabled me to see the scenes and parts where I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to discover what happened next, or how the characters would behave. It was a grand experience, and not just a reading experience but a learning experience too.

I saw the 1939 film many, many years ago and my memories of it are vague, not much beyond its setting, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and a few quotes: ‘Tomorrow is another day’ and Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn’ – this is actually a misquote from the book – Rhett says ‘lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’

 My knowledge of American history is quite limited, so I learnt a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta – I couldn’t even have placed them on a map before!!!

I liked the structure of the novel – straightforward chronological sequence told in the third person.

The characters are well-defined and are developed as the book progresses. Even the minor characters are distinct and I had no trouble identifying them. But the main characters are magnificent: Scarlett O’Hara, wilful, spirited, supremely self-centred and single-minded, a cheat and liar, but also charming, brave and fearless, as her character develops from a frivolous flirt to a much darker personality. She is obsessed by her infatuation for Ashley Wilkes, by her need for money and her desperate desire never to be hungry ever again. I swung between not liking her, admiring her courage, then thoroughly disliking the person she became and willing her to change – she didn’t of course.

Rhett Butler, black-hearted, flashy, a speculator, blockade runner and scallawag, who scandalises Atlanta, is the anti-hero who is gradually revealed as a hero, a tender-hearted, over-indulgent father, who really does love Scarlett, even though he can’t tell her. He’s a much more complicated character than Scarlett who understands human nature much better than Scarlett, seeing both the goodness and strength in Melanie Hamilton (Scarlett’s sister-in-law and Ashley’s wife).

There is so much to write about this book, (and I’m thinking of writing at least one more post about it) but for now I’m ending with these words from Margaret Mitchell when she was asked what Gone With The Wind was about:

… if the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors  used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and those who didn’t. (1936) (About the Author)

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’ve been working my way through some of the books I’ve owned for ages – books I really wanted to read when I bought them, but have since just sat on the bookshelves unread for a variety of reasons. I’ve had The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett for five years! The main reason I haven’t read it before now is its length – it has 1,076 pages!

I can’t remember now why I bought this book, possibly it was because I like historical novels and I like historic buildings and The Pillars of the Earth is set in 12th century England during the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda/Maud (she’s known by both names – in this book she’s called Maud, but at school we were taught her name was Matilda). It’s also the story of the building of a cathedral.

I was interested in the details of building a cathedral, the architecture and building techniques, but it is in essence a family saga. However it is so long-winded and repetitive that I began to think Follett must have written it as maybe three books and then joined them together without editing them, or maybe he was reminding himself of what he’d written earlier – it took him years to complete the book.

It’s a bit like a soap opera – terrible things happen, the characters overcome them and recover only to be knocked down again by more terrible events –  violence, power struggles and rape and pillage abound. It’s a bit simplistic with a really bad, evil character and a saintly one, a beautiful woman and a witch-type and so on. But it kept me entertained without having to think too hard and I even found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading, wondering what could possibly happen next. Parts of the novel came to life more than others – one being near the end of the book with the story of Thomas Ã¡ Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

There is a sequel, World Without End, set in the same place and featuring descendants of the original characters nearly 200 years after the events in The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not rushing to read it!

There was a TV version – I didn’t see it!

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I was hoping that The Distant Hours, Kate Morton’s third book would be as good as the first,The House at Riverton, which I loved. I’ve read her second book The Forgotten Garden, which disappointed me, because it was predictable and I thought it was a re-working of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. However, I think The Distant Hours is the least satisfying, which is a shame as it promised to be so good at the beginning and the story itself is fascinating …

A dilapidated castle, aristocratic twins, a troubled sister and a series of dark secrets cast a whispery spell … (from the back cover)

It begins with a creepy tale, The True History of the Mud Man, a children’s story written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of the castle. It begins:

Hush €¦ Can you hear him?

The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.

Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that it will soon begin.

The trees know, for they are old and have seen it all before.

A tale which haunts the book. The dark secrets begin to surface when Edie Burchill’s mother receives a long-lost letter written fifty years earlier from one of the sisters at Milderhust Castle. Edie is intrigued but her mother is reluctant to talk about it and about the time that she was an evacuee at the castle during the war.

The story slips backwards and forwards in time between the 1990s and the Second World War and the characters and the descriptions of the settings are fine – up to a point. But the book moves at a snail’s past over its 670 pages. There is just too much unnecessary detail, about things on the periphery that never go anywhere. There is so much that it stifles the narrative and the heartaches, betrayals and tragedies become a catalogue of events. I just wasn’t involved. But this is still an enjoyable book, if over long and not as good as her earlier books.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Some years ago I was browsing in a bookshop at Gatwick airport to add to the books I’d brought with me to read on holiday and I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it. I’ve read some of her other books, but none as good as The Poisonwood Bible. When I saw that she had written The Lacuna and it had won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, (actually beating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall!) I bought it, expecting great things. That was two and half years ago and it’s only this year that I’ve read it.

I was disappointed as I don’t think it’s as good as either Wolf Hall or The Poisonwood Bible. There some good parts, but overall I was glad to finish reading it. It’s a long tale (670 pages), moving from Mexico in the 1930s to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the USA of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it began and ended well, with good descriptions and fascinating characters, but I got bored several times in the middle.

It’s the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. It begins in Mexico where Harrison’s mother took him to live when she left his father to live with a Mexican businessman, she calls Mr Produce the Cash behind his back. I thought this part came to life with lyrical descriptions of the people and the landscape. But it is only in the second half of the novel that I felt Harrison himself came alive as a character, no longer talking about himself in the third person, ‘the boy’, and referring to himself as ‘I’.

Throughout the book Kingsolver intermingles real characters and events with her fictional ones and I thought that worked well. There are the artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Harrison works for Diego, mixing plaster for his huge murals he painted in Mexico City. Whilst working for Rivera, who was a communist he met and subsequently worked for the exiled Bolshevik leader, Lev Trotsky. And it is this connection that eventually lands him in difficulties later on when he had moved to live in the USA and became a novellist writing historical fiction about the Aztecs. He is accused of being a communist and being Un-American.

I found the historical parts very interesting as I knew nothing about Rivera, or his wife, and very little about Trotsky and the McCarthy trials. But eventually I found the level of detail was just too much and the story meandered, losing impetus. Harrison himself comes across as too passive, too accepting of what ever happened to him, a victim of circumstances. Much more interesting is the second narrator, Violet Brown who becomes his secretary and friend, who saved his diaries from being burnt.

There are several instances of lacunas, missing parts and gaps, scattered throughout the book. For example, some of Harrison’s diaries and notebooks go missing. As a boy he loved swimming and diving into a cave, which is only available at certain tides:

Today the cave was gone. Saturday last it was there. Searching the whole rock face below the cliff did not turn it up. Then the tide came higher and waves crashed too hard to keep looking. How could a tunnel open in the rock and then close again? … Leandro says the tides are complicated and the rocks on that side are dangerous, to stay over here in the shallow reef. He wasn’t pleased to hear about the cave. He already knew about it, it is called something already, la lacuna. (page 45)

But although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It’s taken me a couple of months to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (first published in 1991), Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Needless to say that this is a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao.

Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was briefly a Red Guard at the age of fourteen, and then a peasant, a €˜barefoot doctor’, a steelworker and an electrician. She came to Britain in 1978, and in 1982 became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. €˜Wild Swans’  won the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. She lives in London.

In Wild Swans she casts light on why and how Mao was able to exercise such paralysing control over the Chinese people. His magnetism and power was so strong and coupled with his immense skill at manipulation and his ability to inspire fear, it proved enough to subdue the spirit of most of the population; not to mention the absolute cruelty, torture and hardships they had to endure.

I wondered how she knew so much about what happened to her mother and grandmother (I don’t know nearly as much about mine) but in the Introduction she explains that when her mother came to visit her in London they talked every day for months. She talked about their eventful lives – her grandmother had been a concubine of a warlord general and her mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of 15. She also recorded sixty hours of her memories.

I wrote a bit about the book in a Book Beginnings post at the end of last November, when I’d just started to read it. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; New edition edition (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007463405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007463404
  • Source: borrowed from a friend