Wednesday, 7 August 2013

#100 Books - A Secret History, WOW!

So – I just found my first absolute GEM in this challenge and it’s a book I had never actually heard of before starting it, which, given what I have learnt about it since, is kinda shocking. I am a big fan of Bret Easton Ellis and have read all of his books, particularly enjoying Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction, the latter of which contains some characters which are cross referenced in Tartt’s A Secret History. It transpires that Tartt and Easton Ellis are friends who met at College – and it was this college (Bennington, Vermont) which became the basis for her Hampden and his Camden campuses respectively.

The story is a highly engaging and well written account of some murders which occur around and have links to the group of friends which the narrator (Richard) is part of. It is more a story about WHY the murders happen and how it affects those involved than it is about who committed them and this is one of the fascinating elements of the book. The characters are fabulous; vivid, strongly defined and easy to imagine meeting in your everyday life. From about 5 pages in I was absolutely hooked.

Tartt manages to convey with spooky accuracy the feel of being at college (University in the UK) and that period after arriving where groups of friends are forming and patterns of behaviour become set. It is very believable and some events really do trigger parallels for me as a reader, certain personality types which seem to be obligatory in this environment, expectations and attitudes to drink, sex, drugs. The accuracy of her descriptions paints a highly effective background to the story itself and I believe that this is partly why I found it so mind-blowingly engaging.

I can see some clear similarities with Easton Ellis’ style of writing, mainly the way this is paced, some of the language and the highly engaging characters, but Tartt makes this world totally her own and I believe she is far warmer and less clinical in her story than Easton Ellis usually is in his (not that this is a criticism of his work – which is probably better for being so).

I read this book in about a week, mostly in my usual small segments of time on the tram – but it was one of those which I simply felt desperate to retain engagement with and therefore I spent more time in an evening just blissfully reading for pleasure, lost in their world. I love Tartt’s style of writing and will definitely be looking up her other works off the back of this, I wish I had found her sooner and I guess this is where the #100 books experiment pays dividends because for every godawful Little Women experience, there is a solid gold nugget like this one.

I am now on to The Clan of the Cave Bear and it’s early days but going well. So far 4 books down of the 13 I need to complete before year end which is fair progress to stay on track I think.

Friday, 2 August 2013

#100 Books - Little Women

Sunday 28th July 2013 was a day on which I reached a blessed, waited for, hugely needed milestone in my life. I finally read the last page of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘classic’ novel Little Women and could put the awful thing down once and for all.

Rarely have I actively disliked a book so intensely and so quickly. Some tomes have let me down almost immediately but still had enough of a hook to keep me reading and ignore the poor writing or insipid characters, others have slowly let me down from a strong start and then there are those which have been a continuous, but worthwhile struggle (most recently Crime and Punishment). This was none of the above. It was just utterly bloody horrible.

I am aware that I am kinda trampling all over a book which many people love and for this I apologise. But the fact that this book is held in such affection (and is even on the list of 100 books you should read before you die in the first place) baffles me. I do think that the reason for this bafflement is that I have made the error of trying to read it as an adult when I should have picked it up as a child, when, I am reliably informed, the story would have charmed, rather than annoyed me.

However, I disliked this book so enormously that every single page put me into an increasing rage, to the point where I now feel that even if I had a daughter (it seems to be aimed at a female audience) I would NEVER let her read this terrible manifesto to prehistoric womanhood for fear of it sending all the wrong messages wrapped in a big pile of twee at a time when I would want her to be starting to learn how to be confident in her gender.

"a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother"

For those of you who have not read it - the writing style of this book makes Enid Blyton read like Jo Nesbo. I did not think it possible to make words sound so very sickeningly sugar coated, to the extent that I started to question whether Allcott knew full well what she was doing and was, in fact, taking the piss out of us all. I find it very hard to believe that she meant the reader to take it seriously, even given how long ago this was written (1868). Unfortunately, this astoundingly sugary tone combined with the terrible sanctimonious preaching which the reader simply cannot escape, made me feel like I was being forcefed a hideously pieced together religious diatribe. It was like the Mormons had turned up at the door on their bikes and refused to go away until I had made myself physically sick overdosing on Battenberg whilst they recited psalms.

Anyway, one of my most well-read friends informed me that it is widely acknowledged that Alcott herself thought the book was not that great and knocked it out speedily for cash. This makes me almost admire the woman for her audacity, although I have lost hours and hours of my life to this dirge. Further evidence of this theory that Alcott was being rather tongue in cheek comes from one of the subplots where Jo is trying to pedal her short stories to an editor who tells her: .

"People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don't sell nowadays."

I almost sniggered at the blatant hypocrisy of this statement within such a novel. It surely must be a joke?

The characters in this book all seemed pretty beige and unlikable to me, except for Jo who is almost ok and, I can slightly agree, is the ‘anti-heroine’ of the piece. Even she, however, is prone to the seemingly standard pattern of wailing and whining about life before receiving some kind of moralistic speech from the (slap-worthy, tedious and pious) Mrs March and declaring that her lesson is learnt. She also writes terrible poetry (akin to my 14/15 year old teenage angst attempts but without the mildly interesting swear words) which pretty much prevents me from liking her much even though she is marginally less of a wet lettuce than the rest of them.

I was reminded by a friend about the episode of Friends where Joey reads Little Women (encouraged by Rachel) and gets very upset when Beth dies. It was probably because of this that I was already aware of the event before I got to it, however, Beth is hardly formed as a character at all, continually referred to as the quiet, placid, demure, home bird (or being blunt, just really fucking boring)….so it was rather hard to feel too saddened at her eventual (although rather dragged out) demise. It also prompted more of Jo's awful poetry which in turn caused some swearing from me.

I am sorry, to all the Little Women fans out there. I really did give it a fair go but I really detested this book. I guess doing the 100 Books challenge is bound to produce some experiences like this, as well as some absolute gems (one of which I am now reading - The Secret History by Donna Tartt) and that's what it's all about. You can absolutely rest assured that there is no way in hell I will read the rest of this series of books or ever pick this one up again.