Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Content Reader

The first book I read by Wilkie Collins was The Moonstone, considered to be one of the first detective stories in the English language. It was written in 1868. I really loved it; the way it was written and the story. To my surprise, The Woman in White was written earlier, already in 1859. By this time Collins had become friends with Charles Dickens and this novel, as most of his other novels, were serialised before they were printed. That is, of course, why it is such a long book. By the time I had read about one third, I could not possibly imagine what was going to take place in the next two thirds of the book. Well, I was about to see.

The more I got into the book, the more difficult it was to put down. I really loved it. The story absolutely fascinated me, and although it is one of those ’slow’ books where nothing much seem to happen, there is a continuous development of the story, in its own slow pace.
It is built up by extracts of most, but not all, of the persons involved in the mystery. It starts with Walter Hartright, when he, one evening on his way home meets the mysterious woman in white. Being a gentleman he helps her to find her way to London. They do a little bit of small talk, and she reveals she was only happy once in her life, when she spent some time in Limmeridge House in Cumberlands. This is the exact place where Walter Hartright is going, in order to teach drawing to two sisters, Marian and Laura, living there. 
Once there he tries to find out who the woman in white is, but nobody seems to remember that she has once been there. A certain help is received from Marian, who finds a trace in one of her mother’s old letters. The ’ghost’ of the woman in white, and the secret she says she knows, is hanging over all the events in the novel. Each testimony takes the story a little bit further, until it all is revealed in the end. The story is scattered with exquisitely drawn characters, and it is a treat to follow them, whether you like them or not. They are like the characters ’littering’ an Agatha Christie novel. They are there to build up the story, deepen the mystery and in the end…several culprits to choose from.
A fine mystery indeed. Well written, keeping up the suspense, even take you - or again, at least me - into a fit of thinking and screaming to myself (silently of course); ”No, no, don’t do that! No, don’t go there! No, it is a trap, don’t you see! That is why I think that this will be one of my favourite suspense novels. I loved The Moonstone, and, I think I can say, I probably think this is a little bit better. 
This is my first entry for the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016, hosted by My Reader’s BlockGolden Age for mysteries published before 1960. It is related to 'Ghostly Figure'. This novel was published in 1859.

The Content Reader
It fall under 'Ghostly Figure'. Just a few to go!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Little Things we do in between Reading!

The Content Reader

I am finally reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. So far it is really great and a real page turner. However, it seems to be very, very long! I am only one third through the book and I don't know what will happen with the rest of the book. It is really a good, old fashion mystery where we only get a little information at the time. Wonderful book so far.

In between reading I watched The Danish Girl. Interesting film with fantastic actors. I found the film somewhat slow at times, but when I had finished it, it lingered with me for a long time. I think the sufferings of Lili came out really well and also the impact the situation had on the people around him/her.

My latest craze and discovery is Podcasts. I just love them. I happily listen to fellow bloggers Simon at Stuck in a Book and Rachel at Book snob and their Tea or Books podcasts. Today while out walking I was listening to The Guardian's podcasts on books. One interview with Bill Bryson and one with Colm Toibin. Really interesting and fun to listen to. I 'LOLed' many times, and that does not happen too often to me. I also have other podcasts waiting for me on blogging, books and organising yourself. There are so many interesting podcasts out there. Do you have any favourites to recommend?

What do you enjoy doing in between reading?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Amsterdam - A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

The main reason for me reading this book, was to get a historical background to the Dutch 'Golden Age' in the 17th century, for a project I am doing. However, it is such an excellent and interesting read, covering the history of this fantastic city, up to our days, so I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history.

The Dutch are well known for their liberal views, and this book tells it all. Shorto is covering the whole history of the city, and it is as exciting as any adventure book. He knows what he is talking about. He lived in Amsterdam for six years from 2007 to 2013, and is not only an author, but also a historian and journalist, and the book is very well researched.

This is evident in all the details of people living in the city, within all areas of the society. The freedom of speech and the possibilities to pursue your ideas, created a very talented population, in a time where restrictions were put on people by governments and royals. He has found the stories of, not only well known people, but also ordinary people that somehow made their mark on the city. A fascinating story of fighting against the sea to make arable land, hardworking people on all levels, immigrants attracted by the possibilities the city offered, open minded people and a love for the city where they lived.
”The Dutch provinces were for a long time relatively complacent components of the empire. Dutch people had no national identity as such - they related not to a sense of ”being Dutch” but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders of Friesians. They were pious and hardworking; they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat, and in return they received protection.  
In another sense, however, the situation of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe  - a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labor or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. And the lord, in turn, owed fealty to both a greater lord and to the Church. 
The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason as with nearly everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying ”God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Residents banded together to form water boards that were responsible for the complex, nonstop task of maintaining polders (reclaimed boards - waterschappen - are still very much a part of Dutch life and have exerted an enormous influence on the culture, in particular on the peculiar combination of individualism and communalism that helps define Dutchness.” 
A story about Amsterdam is also the story of its most successful enterprise; The Dutch East India Company. It was founded by a couple of successful businessmen, but was also sanctioned by the government of the day. It was a huge company and transported silk, spices and other exotic commodities from the East to Europe. This was one of the first share holding companies in the world. Although the Tulipomania that stirred the Dutch society in the 1630s and made people rich of poor from one day to the next, was the first sign of a stock market enterprise. The grandeur, richness, liberalisation and the possibilities for all people to find work, would probably not have been possible without the Company.

The Content Reader
A waterway in Amsterdam
Shorto gives us a varied story of the history of the city, its people, its liberalism and its religious freedom, that was far ahead of any place in the world at the time. Many great names in history, philosophy, art, science and other areas were either born here, have lived here or have passed by the city at certain times; Rembrandt the painter, Spinoza the philosopher, John Locke who had to leave England took refuge in Amsterdam and ”During and after his five years in Amsterdam and travels to other Dutch cities, where he would be influenced and encouraged by the international cast of thinkers he met there, he would write and publish what would become three hallmark texts of the Enlightenment, on democratic government, tolerance, and epistemology, books that would earn him the unofficial title of father of classical liberalism and that would shape modern political thought, especially in England and the United States.” Many of the ideas on liberalism practised in Amsterdam went on to be the base for our modern democracies.

The Content Reader
Rembrandt's famous "Night Watch" at the Rijksmuseum
The 17th century was ”The Golden Age” of Holland. Everything seemed possible and was successful. However, already in the end of the century times changed. The ’Golden Age’ was a fascinating time, and visiting Amsterdam and its museums today, it is still there and gives us a hint of the grandeur of the city as it once was.

There are many more interesting eras and people in this history of Amsterdam. We still see the influence of the history in today's Netherlands. I think it also gives us a better understanding of the liberal, present day Dutch! Read it and see for yourself.

The Content Reader

Russell Shorto has written other books, of which one is 'The Island at the Center of the World'
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America. There is a part of the Amsterdam book that tells the story of a young couple who emigrated to America to create a new life. They were among the first Dutch people to settle in America.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

This book found its way into my TBR shelves some years ago. Mainly because I loved The Girl with the Pearl Earring so much. The last story was woven around a painting by Johannes Vermeer with the same name, and considered to be one of his master pieces. This book is about another painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Girl. Not much is known about the painting, but it is thought to have been done around 1490.

Inspired by this painting Tracy Chevalier has written a tale of a painter, a young girl from the upper classes, her mother and the weavers of tapestries in Brussels. The painter, Nicolas des Innocents,  gets a commission to make paintings which will be transfered into tapestries. He falls in love with the daughter of the noble man, and it seems, in most women that come his way. Once the paintings are ready he leaves for Brussels where the real weaving masters work. Here he gets involved with the family of the weaving master, who is taking on the challenge of his life in producing the tapestries with a tight time frame. The influence of the charming painter also upsets the family's routines and plans for the future.

I did not like this novel as much as the 'earring' one, although it is a rather more burlesque story. Maybe because the narration changed in each chapter.  The story is told from the views of the painter, the daughter, the mother, and the daughter and wife of the weaver. This approach provides an insight into the various worlds of the characters, that is true, but it somehow made it more 'unruly' for me. On the other hand the characters are well drawn and the way of telling the story tells us first hand thoughts and impressions from the various persons. Each of them are 'prisoners' under their social status and the unspoken rules of society.

It is definitely worth reading and the painting can be interpreted in many ways, and Tracy Chevalier has found one of them. I find this way of telling a story, inspired by something like a painting or a historical event very appealing.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

This book is part of the challenge What’s in a Name hosted by Wormhole, the first entry being a country in the title. It is also part of the challenge Full House Reading Challenge 2016 hosted by Book Date, relating to a book published in 2016. 

A couple of weeks ago I went to Passa Porta here in Brussels to meet up with Yann Martel. He was here to promote his new novel The High Mountains of Portugal. I wrote about the very interesting interview in an earlier post (see link under name). 

I have now finished his new book. I was not overenthusiastic about his Life of Pi, even if I might see it differently now, after hearing him talk about his writing, his thoughts and his way of seeing the world. Maybe I would have read and interpreted his new book differently if I had not heard his ideas behind the stories. Nevertheless, I loved his new book.

The novel is divided into three parts, taking place in 1904, 1939 and 1989. They are about three persons, in different times, with the stories coming together in the end. Although you know the stories are somehow connected, it is not obvious how when reading them. The three persons, men, have lost someone they loved and are trying to cope with the world without their loved ones. They do it in different ways, but the common theme is that they somehow end up in the high mountains of Portugal. Each story is very engaging, and not clear from the start where it will end.

During the interview he told us about his theory that an Agatha Christie story and the Gospels have a lot in common. This is part of the second story in the book, and it is a very interesting point of view. The third story involves a chimpanzee, and as we know from Life of Pi, Martel has a special relationship with animals. He thinks they are living in the present and anything past and future is not important for them. This is especially obvious in the last story and gives you something to think about when it comes to priorities in our lives. 

I really loved these stories. They are told in a loving way, rather funny in between the more serious parts. It was like going on a trip, being a silent observer, and part of the stories. I could identify myself with the characters, their sufferings and their final destiny. A somewhat different book that stays with you long after it is finished. 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

A while ago I read Deborah Swift’s historical novel A Divided Inheritance  which is an historical fiction novel set in early 17th century, starting in London and moving on to Seville in Spain.

This book is set somewhat later in England, during the turbulent times of the English Civil War, in the middle of the 17th century. It is about the life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, rumoured to have been acting as a highway woman and also known as The Wicked Lady.

There are few facts known about Katherine Fanshawe but Deborah Swift has used what there is to create a touching story of her life. The story is told from Abigail Chaplin’s point of view. She is a deaf poor girl, who is employed as a maid in the castle. Nobody pays her any attention, since she is deaf, but she can read lips and gets hold of more information than she should. Katherine Fanshawe is living a troubled life in her castle, controlled by her step-father and his nephew whom she was forced to marry. Her only friend is Abigail and they bond in some kind of friendship which is not without problems. When the stepfather and husband go away to fight for the king, the local people, led by Abigail’s brother, starts to settle on land they think rightly belongs to them, and Katherine and Abigail get involved. Katherine dresses herself in her maid’s clothes and pretends to be a servant herself. There is also a rumour that there is a ’highway woman’ robbing the rich people.

It is an interesting time to write about, and Deborah Swift manages to visualise the times and customs, and makes it into a compelling story, including a twist in the end!

I received this book for free from Endeavour Press, since I have enrolled in The Endeavour Press Virtual Historical Festival which will take place from April 18 - 22. They offer a big variety of historical fiction for participants. During the week, if I have understood it correctly, several of the writers will be available for discussions and interviews. Being a fan of historical fiction, it sounds like an interesting event. I am looking forward to participate with other persons interested in historical fiction. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Classics Club Lucky SPIN number!

This months Spin number with the Classic Club is - #8.

Looking at my list I find A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce!

Just to get going. I think at least I am slightly better off than Brona at Brona's Books who has to tackle Dubliners! Or do I mistake this title with 'Ulysses'? I certainly do. Just checking my James Joyce book which contains both Dubliners and A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man they are about 200 pages each. I think I might be able to finish this one until May.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Classic Spin #12

The Classics Club is hosting another spin on March 7. I will try to be more disciplined, because it seems I have only read one book on my list so far. Some of the books on the list are also part of other challenges I participate in. To hit two birds with one stone will be good for my TBR shelves. 

Here is my updated list.

1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
2. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
4. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
5. Light in August by William Faulkner
6. Karin Lavransdotter by Sigrid Undset
7. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
8. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
9. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
10. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
11. Richard III by William Shakespeare
12. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Green
13. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
14. The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolaj Gogol
15. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waughn
16. Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams
17. The Taming of a Screw by William Shakespeare
18. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen 
19. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
20. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain