re:View – The 2013 Bookshelf III

Still catching up on the bookshelf. Here are ten more from this year: Random impulse buys, classics I’d been meaning to read for years, and a bit of a Sherlock Holmes marathon. And with this the Bookshelf is almost up to date with where I am now, reading wise. Almost…

The Paperboy by Pete Dexter
I randomly picked this up because I’d seen the movie poster and it was on offer in Waterstones. Without really knowing what to expect I was drawn into this book from the first page. There’s not a lot going on plot-wise, but even through the dozens of pages where nothing really happens, the atmosphere just draws you along. Dexter gives so much depth to each character (even the minor ones), and so much detail to his settings that you end up feeling you’re actually there, right in the middle of Redneck Nowhere, Florida, in the 1960s. Putting this book down felt like being dragged kicking and screaming back into reality. Which is my absolute favourite thing about books. So it’s all good.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James
Oh, Henry James. The author who can murder you by the sheer force of the comma. I’ll admit, I find James very hard to read. I only managed to finish Turn of the Screw on my third attempt, and I didn’t find it particularly rewarding (even though it did freak the hell out of me). The Aspern Papers was somewhat more easy to digest, and also quite intriguing as a story. Mostly I’ve been wanting to read James because his work had a major influence on the writing of Edith Wharton, one of my favourite authors. While I do enjoy his stories and his characters, I have to say I just can’t deal with paragraph-long sentences of the kind where you have to leave breadcrumbs along the way in order not to get lost. Which is a shame because I really, really want to read Portrait of a Lady. Maybe I’ll be brave enough one day.
Pens: 3 out of 5

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Wow, what an intense and soul-destroyingly bleak novella. Edith Wharton has an amazing gift of transporting you to the scene of the action, even if it’s a place you’ve never been to and a time long before your own. I dare say no other author will ever make me feel the harshness of a New England winter over a hundred years ago, or the bitterness of a poor man’s life in the middle of it. This is such a powerful story built from such scarce raw materials – a sketch of a village, one home, and three characters. But they are wonderfully complex, and their dependency on each other and their surroundings is narrated so well, you just can’t help being intrigued from the first page to the last. Edith Wharton will simply forever be one of my favourite authors.
Pens: 5 out of 5

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My first encounter with Edith Wharton’s writing came towards the end of high school when I stumbled across The House of Mirth. This one book essentially set the course for my entire academic path, and eventually my career. But despite loving it and reading it a dozen times at least, I was hesitant to try Wharton’s other works. Or maybe it was because of it. I guess I thought nothing could possibly be up there with House of Mirth, and feared that reading more of her work might leave me disappointed or disillusioned. Now I only wish I had read The Age of Innocence earlier, because it simply added another dimension to how much I love Wharton’s work. It has almost become a companion piece to House of Mirth in my eyes – telling of the struggles of similar people in a similar time and social set, but from the perspective of a man. While House of Mirth marked my first encounter in classic literature with a feminist (even though Lily Bart probably didn’t know that’s what she was), Age of Innocence brought me full circle by introducing me to the creature I never could have imagined existed in this time: The male feminist. And that makes Newland Archer’s story almost more tragic than Lily Bart’s: He actually wants the women in his life to think for themselves and be assertive, but they have been so conditioned to be the pretty little silent wives that he can’t even persuade them to take their lives into their own hands. This whole book is so rich and clever and beautiful, I just can’t wait to read it over and over.
Pens: 5 out of 5

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
So I thought to myself, well, I loved Gatsby. Let’s try some more Fitzgerald. But after reading This Side of Paradise I’m thinking, let’s leave it at that. Although I should probably read another one or two, because I really do want to find more of that magic that makes Gatsby stand out to this day and remain so relevant, but after dragging myself through This Side of Paradise in utter boredom I’m wondering if the rest of Fitzgerald’s writing is simply too much a phenomenon of its own time. This book just felt so pretentious and self-indulgent that I can’t see myself trying another one any time soon.
Pens: 1 out of 5

The Matriarch by G.B. Stern
I picked this book up because Daunt Books had an entire window display dedicated to it, and the last time I saw them do that I ended up reading Auntie Mame, which became one of my favourite books. So I figured, it was a promising enough way to pick up a book I never otherwise would have noticed. A somewhat epic Jewish family saga that traces a family’s rise and fall through the better part of a century and all across Europe, this book focuses on the succession of women at the head of the clan (hence the title) and naturally covers a whole range of feminist issues. But it’s also a story about emigration and finding new homes, and a beautiful comment on the balance between wanting to fit in and feeling smothered by the weight of responsibility and sacrifice. And I think I loved it most for this honest and sometimes painful account of what makes a family and what makes you part of a family.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I’ve been on a bit of a Sherlock Holmes binge, fuelled by my newfound obsession with the BBC’s adaptation. Having read some bits and pieces in the past, I decided to catch up on the rest. Although certainly less iconic than some of the other stories, the second full-length Holmes novel presents a fairly entertaining case that certainly shows off Sherlock’s genius to the max, which makes a fangirl hopeless little nerd like me very happy indeed. It also features a wild night-time boat chase down the Thames which just strikes me as the kind of thing that must have been amazingly exciting in Victorian times. This is detective stuff at its best.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I think this was actually the first book I ever read in English (an easy language version, in my second year of learning English in school), but I had absolutely no recollection of it. Probably not my favourite ever Holmes story mostly due to the absence of the man himself through most of it, this is nevertheless a fantastic page-turner of a mystery novel, and I do love it for the fact that it lets Watson shine a bit more and remains, to this day, such a wonderfully scary horror story.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
To be honest, I’ve read so much Holmes by now that all the short stories merge into a bit of a blur, but I remember enjoying this set of stories immensely – especially, of course, the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the top of the Reichenbach Falls. (Where, incidentally, I’ll be stopping by next week on my trip through Switzerland!) Even though I must have read dozens of Sherlock Holmes stories by now, I keep finding myself surprised at how I never get bored of them, and amazed at the genius of both the detective and his creator.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Sherlock: The Casebook by Guy Adams
So, I’ve already confessed to being a shamelessly obsessive BBC Sherlock fangirl. Naturally, I bought the companion book to the series. And you know what: It’s actually a lot better than I expected. And I only bought it for the pictures of Cheekbones Cumberbatch anyway. Adams offers a lot of interesting background information on each episode along with quotes from the writers and producers, as well as comparing each canon-based episode to the original story. The cases are written up in John’s diary style, with post-it notes illustrating John and Sherlock’s famous on-screen bickering and adding some particularly lovely detail. In between the cases, a handful of nicely researched articles shed some light on the characters’ backgrounds as well as the history of movie and TV adaptations. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of merchandise. And, of course, full of pretty pictures.
Pens: 4 out of 5

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