Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson

I found this book at my local library on display in the 1st Novel Collection. That’™s one of the features of the library that I really appreciate. Sometime I must write a post about why I love libraries so much.

I’™d never heard of Linda Olsson before and didn’™t know what to expect, but the first sentences drew me effortlessly into the story:

‘œThere had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled.

It was the first day of March. She had driven to Stockholm in the gradually deepening dusk that seamlessly became night. It had been a slow journey, but it had given her time to think. Or erase thoughts.’

This sets the scene ‘“ it’™s coming to the end of winter and there is the promise of spring. Veronika, a young writer, has come to live near a small village in the Swedish countryside. Her only close neighbour is Astrid, who is an elderly recluse. From this opening it’™s obvious that Veronika is troubled, needing to sort out her thoughts. There is a mystery too concerning Astrid’™s past and she too is troubled by her memories. At first she does not respond to Veronika’™s tentative efforts to get to know her, although she watches Veronika as she walks passed Astrid’s house on her way to the village. When she hasn’™t seen Veronika for a few days and there is no sign of life coming from the house this disturbs her and she finds herself knocking on Veronika’™s door. Veronika is ill and Astrid, unused to any social contact looks after her. And so, slowly, their friendship begins and gradually they confide in each other as the year moves from spring into summer.

Astrid reveals how she struggled as a child after her mother left her and her father; the troubled relationship with her father; and how she realised that she had married a man she didn’™t love. Veronika eventually reveals the circumstances surrounding her relationship with James, a New Zealander she was living with after leaving her Swedish boyfriend, as she helps Astrid cope with visiting her dying husband, who she hasn’™t seen since he was taken into a rest-home.

I liked this book, for the way the secrets of the two women’™s lives are gradually revealed as their friendship deepens. It kept my interest throughout, as I wanted to know what had happened to Astrid and Veronika in the past. I think the turning point for Astrid was when she was sixteen and had found a special place in the forest, high in the hills above the village. It was here that she found a clearing where wild strawberries grew and where she met her first and only love, Lars. Lars was killed in a farming accident and Astrid buried her memories of him, until she told Veronika about him. She tells Veronika:

‘œIt is in the nature of things to change. Nothing can last beyond its given time. ‘¦ I wish now that I had held on to the memories of that summer. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I had. Instead I allowed what came before and what came after to overshadow it. I should have cared for it, the way I cared for my strawberry patch. Allowed it to develop new growth, new fruit. But perhaps they are one and the same, the strawberry patch and the memories of that summer. Finally retrieved.’

For Veronika, it’™s a time to put her life back together again. She says she has never understood time:

‘œMemories seem to surface in no particular order, with no time attached. Yesterday can seem as distant as last year. ‘¦ My life now consists of fragments ‘¦ where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. ‘¦ It feels as if my existence was extinguished in a flash, and afterwards my universe became incomprehensible. ‘¦ I want to remember everything. But perhaps I need to give it more time. Allow myself some rest. Distance myself a little, to see if I can make out a pattern. And face the truth about what is really there.’

The past, the nature of memories and time and above all the importance of love are themes that are explored in this novel. It’™s a story that lingers in my memory.

The Pit and The Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe

It seemed appropriate that I should read The Pit and The Pendulum today as on this day in 1849 (Oct. 7) Edgar Allan Poe died in mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in the Washington College Hospital.

I have read several of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and so far had not found them to be too scary. I had come to the book with great expectations that I would be terrified, so to some extent it was a relief to find that the tales did not freeze my blood, although I do think they are gory and sickening. Today I have changed my mind, now that I’ve read The Pit and the Pendulum.

This story is as horrifying as I had imagined it to be. I woke up in a tent once in pitch darkness, convinced I couldn’t breath and in a mad panic to get out. This is how The Pit and the Pendulum starts – the narrator wakes after being sentenced to death by the Inquisition, lying, aware of the ‘tumultuous motion of the heart, and in my ears, the sound of its beating‘ – oh, how I know that petrifying sound and feeling in the dead of night. He opens his eyes and can see nothing:

‘The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me.’

The horror continues as he cautiously examines his prison and only by luck avoids falling into a pit at the centre of the dungeon. The mental torment piles on him at the thought of the means of his death, and the hideous torture awaiting him. Exhausted he then sleeps and on waking finds the dungeon lit by a ‘wild, sulphurous lustre’, a pitcher of water and a loaf within his reach. The water is drugged and on waking again he finds himself bound head to foot on a low framework of wood, a pendulum suspended over him swinging and slowing descending towards his heart. He is left for hours to contemplate the result of the pendulum’s descent and then becomes aware of rats swarming around him, ‘wild, bold, ravenous – their red eyes glaring upon’ him.

I think my reaction to this tale is partly because of my own fear and panic at waking in utter darkness and breathless, but is also due to the tension and suspense Poe has instilled into the text. I did anticipate the ending to a certain extent, but not completely, so that was a plus as well.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl gives a fictional account of the mystery surrounding Poe’s death, based on the historical facts. I read this book some months ago and although I think it is too long and tedious in parts, it did trigger my interest in Poe, as did a more entertaining novel, The American Boy, by Andrew Taylor, which is based on Poe’s childhood. For more information on Poe, go to The Poe Society.

I also found Ed’s post Poe’s body claimed by Philadelphia at The Bibliothecary Blog very interesting. He has written a piece calling for the exhumation of his body to ‘translate his remains’ from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where Ed maintains he belongs.

 

Red Queen-itis

I feel I’m suffering from Red Queen-itis: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll).

It’s all my own fault, I know, but I’m struggling to read all the blogs I like to visit, read all the books I want to read and write about them, enter all my books into LibraryThing (still not finished) and do all the other things I want to do. When I was working full-time I thought that when I left work I ‘d have lots of time for everything, but it just isn’t like that at all. I can’t think why but I popped into my local library this morning and borrowed two more books. I’d only intended to return some, but at least I returned four and came away with only two.

I’ve spent most of this afternoon just trying to catch up with reading blogs and I’ve so many books I want to read and posts to write and I still haven’t written about Astrid and Veronika. That will have to wait until another day, now.

I didn’t really believe other people when they said that after they left work they didn’t know where the time went or how they ever had time to go to work. I do now!

Chipping Norton Bookshop and The Uncommon Reader


Whilst we were in the Cotswolds last week we drove through Chipping Norton and decided to stop for a coffee. There is a small parking area on Middle Row, just off the main road through the town and there was just one space available. When we got out of the car, we saw behind us some tables and chairs outside a bookshop and thought great that’™s just what we wanted ‘“ a bookshop and a café too!

This is Jaff̩ & Neale, a bright, welcoming bookshop with a good variety of books on offer. There wasnժt much space left inside to sit and have a drink, but as in the car park there was just one table left. It was our day for sure! We had coffee and I was very tempted by the cakes, but resisted.

It was just too much to expect me to resist buying a book and I had a wander round the shelves. They had some books that have been signed by the authors and I was really pleased to find a pile of books signed by Alan Bennett. I had seen on the BBC website a while ago that Alan Bennett had been reading his new book The Uncommon Reader on Radio 4, but I hadn’™t managed to listen. So I was delighted to find it here.

It’™s a lovely little hardback book and it only took me a couple of hours to read it. It tells the story of Her Majesty, not named, but she has dogs, takes her summer holiday at Balmoral and is married to a duke. She comes across the travelling library, thanks to the dogs, parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors at the palace and ends up borrowing a book to save the driver/librarian’™s embarrassment. There are some wonderfully amusing touches, such as the Queen asking:

‘œ’Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’™t have a ticket?’™ No problem,’™ said Mr Hutchings.
‘˜One is a pensioner’™, said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.’™ ‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books’. ‘Six? Heavens!'”

Helped by Norman, who works in the kitchen, she borrows books regularly and this changes her life. This little book is full of interesting ideas about books and the nature of reading and society. As the Queen expands her range she realises that ‘œBooks did not care who was reading them, or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth: letters a republic.’

I love the way Bennett describes how the Queen becomes a bookaholic (my word, not his) and wants to discuss her books and what she is reading. The French President had mentioned Proust to her, when she had asked him what he thought about Jean Genet, which led to her taking Proust’™s novel, all thirteen volumes of it, and George Painter’™s biography of Proust, as her holiday reading at Balmoral. What an image!

This book is only 124 pages, but what a lot is packed into those pages, not a word is wasted. It’™s amusing and thought provoking as well. I wondered where it was leading and how Bennett was going to end the story, but all I’™ll say is that the Queen realises that books have enriched her life ‘œin a way that one could never have expected. ‘œ Her next venture follows inevitably. Do read this book. I wonder if the Queen has.

Books read in September

1. Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis
2. Speaking of Love by Angela Young
3. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
4. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
5. Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
6. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
8. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe

I finished reading a good mixture of books in September. First in the month was Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis, which was our book group meeting’™s choice. For this group we usually read religious non-fiction, both older and more recent books. Letters to Malcolm was published in 1963, not long before Lewis’™s death. It takes the form of letters on prayer written to an fictitious correspondent called Malcolm in a similar vein to The Screwtape Letters, but nowhere nearly as amusing or as confrontational. He has some interesting comments on different aspects of prayer: petitionary prayer, prayers of praise, corporate prayer, and whether it is right to pray for the dead.

There are some questions he poses that he doesn’™t answer directly, which made me ponder further. Such an example is how can we account for the embarrassing promises made in the Bible that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. I’™ve always found this statement puzzling. So did Lewis: ‘œEvery war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.’ The difficulty is not why prayer isn’™t answered, but why it is promised and Lewis can only offer guesses. He asks, as I do too: ‘œAre we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe?’

I’™ve already written about Speaking of Love (see here), Crow Lake (here), Ghostwalk (here) and Ivanhoe (here) all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Edgar Allen Poe’™s short stories are very short and I’™ve discovered that I don’™t really like such short stories. These are most grizzly and so horrific that they turn my stomach, particularly The Black Cat, in which the narrator kills his wife with an axe and then bricks her up in the cellar. When the police arrive and search the premises they hear the cat howling and wailing and lo and behold when the wall is opened there is the corpse, ‘œgreatly decayed and clotted with gore’ and standing on its head is the cat ‘œwith red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire.’

I had built up in my mind this picture of Poe’™s tales as being really spooky and scary, but reading them proved to be disappointing. The Fall of the House of Usher is a bit better, but it still didn’™t live up to my expectations. It’™s a story of the decay of a family into madness and this time the lady of the House of Usher is buried alive.

I’™ve written about The Murders in the Rue Morgue here. This story too has gory details and is interesting as the forerunner of the modern detective story. I’™m not sure I’™m going to read all of Poe’™s tales, but I am going to see if reading The Pit and The Pendulum is as terrifying as watching Vincent Price in the movie.

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful book and Alan Bennett’™s The Uncommon Reader is a little masterpiece. I’™ll write about both of these in another post, as this is enough for now.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I was surprised to find that Ivanhoe was easier to read than I had imagined, although Scott does use some archaic language and there were a few words that I had to look up. It took me some time to read as it’s nearly 500 pages of quite small font in my copy, but I’™m glad I’™ve read it. It’™s a mixture of romance and historical fiction, although I can’™t vouch for its historical accuracy and Scott admits that ‘œit is extremely probable that I may have confused the manner of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier or a good deal later than that era.’

Set in England in the 12th century, ruled by the Normans it is the story of the continuing conflict, approximately a century after the Battle of Hastings, between the Normans, and the Saxons. There are many characters, including Saxon nobles and peasants; Norman knights and Knights Templar; Jews; and outlaws – Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is the son of a Saxon noble, Cedric who has plans to marry his ward, the Lady Rowena to Athelstane, a descendant of the last Saxon monarchs, in an attempt to regain the throne. However, Ivanhoe and Rowena are in love and so his father has banished him.

As the story begins Ivanhoe has returned from the Crusades, in disguise, to his home hoping somehow to win Rowena as his bride and he challenges the Knight Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert at a tournament held by Prince John. As a result he is severely wounded and cared for by the Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jew, Isaac. With the reported escape of King Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment by the Duke of Austria, Prince John fears that the unidentified Black Knight who is victorious at the tournament is his brother returned from the Crusades.

A series of events then rapidly follows including the capture of Rowena, Cedric, Athelstane, Rebecca, Isaac and Ivanhoe by the supporters of Prince John. They are held in the ancient castle of Torquilstone, now belonging to the Norman, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight is of course Richard and he enlists the help of the outlaws Locksley (also known as Robin Hood), Friar Tuck and Alan-a Dale to rescue them.

Scott gives a blow-by-blow account of the siege of the castle and rescue of the captives. I normally gloss over battle scenes as I find descriptions confusing and I admit boring, but Scott won me over completely. Rebecca gives such a vivid description of the battle to Ivanhoe, as he lies wounded on his sick bed, that it seemed as though I was there seeing it for myself. Rebecca of course falls in love with Ivanhoe, who at first seems to be enchanted by her, until she reveals that she is a Jewess.

The racial tension between the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims is one of the themes running through the novel, and is paralleled by the tension between the Normans and the Saxon ‘œporkers’. Rebecca’™s position as one of the despised Jews is contrasted with Rowena’™s with her proud disdain of the Normans. However, lust overcomes prejudice as Bois-Guilbert is infatuated with Rebecca and attempts to seduce her.

The story has many twists and turns. Athelstane is declared dead and then later is found to be alive; Ulrica, the dispossessed Saxon heiress of the castle of Torquilstone dramatically takes revenge on Front-de-Boeuf; and Rebecca is accused of practising witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert. She is condemned to death but pleads for a champion to fight her cause against Bois- Guilbert. Ivanhoe still suffering from his wounds races to the combat and declares himself as Rebecca’™s champion. He is victorious but spares Bois- Guilbert’™s life.

Ivanhoe almost takes backstage being injured and out of action for most of the novel, with the spotlight mainly on the heroic actions of Richard and also on the story of Rebecca. I think Rebecca is actually the star of the book and the scenes of her conflict with Bois-Guilbert reflect the misogyny and racial oppression of the times. ‘˜Rebecca’™ is a good title for a book, yes?

R.I.P.Challenge II The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Murders in the Rue Morgue from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I’m finding these short stories interesting, if not spine chilling, although some of the descriptions (as in this story) turn my stomach.

 

This short story is the forerunner of the detective story, in which an amateur discovers who committed the crime through using his superior skill and logic when the police are baffled.

The key to this story is analysis. It opens with an account of analysis using the games of draughts, chess and whist as comparison. Poe writes:

As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.

Monsieur C Auguste Dupin is the amateur, the analyst, who discovers the identity of the murderer of an old lady and her daughter. About 3 o’clock in the morning the neighbours in the Rue Morgue, Paris are awakened by a succession of terrific shrieks. The daughter is found on the fourth floor of the house behind a locked door (locked on the inside). The room is in the ‘wildest disorder’, there is a razor smeared with blood and tresses of long, grey, bloody hair, apparently pulled out by the roots. There was no sign of a body, but one was eventually found in the chimney:

and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom: it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance.

The body of the mother is found in the yard at the rear of the building ‘with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off.’

Both bodies showed signs of brutal mutilation, vividly described by Poe. There are several people who gave evidence all differing about the nationality of the voices that they heard coming from the building. There is seemingly no way that the murderer could have either entered or left the room, or indeed the building. Dupin with his superior analytical skill manages to uncover the fantastical sequence of events that resulted in the murders and establishes the identity of the killer.

Poe’s style is detailed and to match the character of Dupin is detached and dispassionate. Apart from the horrific details of the state of the bodies there is nothing macabre in this tale. I could guess the identity of the murderer, but I think that’s because I’ve seen films and read books with a similar storyline – lifted from Poe, I now suspect. Dupin is not a particular likeable detective, but he uses his little grey cells in a manner much like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and, of course, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.