I love reading in summer. Sitting on the beach, or in a park with a good book is my idea of bliss. This summer I have conquered some classics that have been on my 'to read' list for some time. Happily, I managed to cross a few titles of my lengthy list.
'Howards End' 1910 - E. M. Forster
So many of my literary friends rave about E. M. Forster. I have to confess that before this summer the film version of 'A Passage to India' (which is fantastic.) To rectify this I picked up my housemates copy of 'Howards End.' This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I literally could not put it down. Forster's style is so 'real', his characters do not seem artificial at all and he captures the complexity of human thought, relationships and behaviours better than most authors. He is not afraid to write the hard truths of life and relationships, something that so many writers avoid in lieu of creating an idealised bond between characters or a predictable ending.
Written in Edwardian England, 'Howards End' is the story of two unmarried and sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel in their early twenties. The novel explores their changing relationship, along with the aspirational middle-class society they belong to. The sisters are described as 'literary' individuals, with Forster exploring the notions of culture, creativity and art throughout the novel. Helen represents the epitome of living a art-driven, free spirited lifestyle, while Margaret's blend of practicality and literary interests reflect the shifting social concerns of the early 20th century. Forster manages to give depth and authenticity to their relationship, with their struggles of growing up and choosing their separate life paths telling of that faced by many siblings. This is a book for those who like to read about the complexities of relationships. Something we all know a lot about.
Also, arty types will love the references to theroies of art and Betthoven's tranquil 5th symphony (this was used in the film adaptation, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9Ey7MjUshg).
'Travels With My Aunt' 1969 - Graham Greene
This book is simply hilarious! 'Travels With My Aunt' is the story of a retired, fifty-something bachelor whose dull lifestyle is interrupted by his worldly Aunt. Henry Pulling meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother's funeral, only to find the elderly Lady has more enthusiasm and unorthodox ideas than himself. After a series of humerus encounters involving cannabis making its way into his mother's urn and subsequent police interrogation, Henry finds himself travelling to Istanbul on the Orient Express. He travels along this famous railway with his Aunt and her much younger African servant-come-lover, the devoted Wordsworth. Suddenly Henry's life is far removed from tending to his dahlias as he hears of his Aunts numerous lovers, adventures and travels.
Greene's fast-paced, layered style makes 'Travels With My Aunt' a real page turner. The plot seems far fetched from the outset, but Greene makes it work by giving a believable voice to his characters. Ultimately, the novel demonstrates the complexity of human beings, with both Henry and his Aunt revealing many layers throughout the text. It isn't until Henry is removed from his uninspiring, solitary milieu that his true colours reveal themselves. Suddenly he and his aunt don't seem quite as different. For Greene, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Definitely a book for a lazy afternoon when you want a good laugh.
'Vanity Fair' 1847 - William Makepeace Thackeray
I picked this classic novel up a few years ago, but soon put it down! The dense 19th century language and complex plot was a bit too much for me. This summer I read the whole thing, and loved it! Thackeray's style reminds me a bit of Jane Austen's: witty, satirical and dense with social commentary. If you like reading Victorian novels, and the snapshots of a seemingly more glamorous society, then this is the book for you.
'Vanity Fair' is the story of the cunning Becky Sharp and her friend Amelia Sedley. The lengthy novel spans from the girls youth to middle age, seeing them endure the demanding social expectations and etiquette of the Victorian Age. Becky exemplifies the position of the orphaned Victorian woman, forced to take her future in her own hands without parents to do the all important marital bidding for her. The scheming Becky is portrayed as selfish and greedy, in contrast with the virtuous Amelia. The former presents a veneer of respectability, whilst disregarding social expectations at every possible moment, while the latter spends her life living according to what was expected of a good Christian Victorian woman. Pointedly, both women fail to achieve lasting personal happiness in the novel, providing an interesting snapshot of the lives of women during the 19th century.
The novel shows how difficult it was during this time to achieve happiness, social standing and security within the rigid social constraints. Thackeray's humour makes the novel an enjoyable, yet dense novel. I recommend this one for a lengthy plane or car trip as its size and 19th century language make for a slow, but worthwhile read.
Now to the rest of the books on my ever-growing to read list.