Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Doomsday Book

I am also calling it the Domesday Book because I would imagine that’s what you’d like to call it, you are so convinced something awful’s going to happen to me. I’m watching you in the observation area right now, telling poor Dr. Ahrens all the dreadful dangers of the 1300s. You needn’t bother. She’s already warned about time lag and every single mediaeval disease in gruesome detail, even though I’m supposed to be immune to all of them. And warned me about the prevalence of rape in the 1300s. And when I tell her I’ll be perfectly all right she doesn’t listen to me either. I will be perfectly all right, Mr. Dunworthy.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an incredible novel. Well-written, pacey, it’s relentless in driving the story forward while keeping the terror just in check. Almost from the start, Willis flings you into the world of academic experimental history at Oxford circa 2054.

It’s just before Christmas and Kivrin, a Medieval history student, is determined to time-travel back to the Middle Ages to experience life as it really was. The absence of the Department Head meant that she was able to convince the acting Head at Brasenose College, Gilchrist, to authorise her drop even though Dunworthy, her mentor at Balliol, warns her against the dangers of traveling so far back in time. For Gilchrist. trying to maximise his trajectory up the career ladder, is planning to send Kivrin back to 1320, before the plague crosses over to England. With so little real information about actual daily life in the Middle Ages, Kivrin spends every moment of her time preparing, learning all the relevant languages, medical information, daily customs so that she will blend in seamlessly. Dr. Mary Ahrens has also prepped her at the hospital, giving her all the necessary inoculations including against bubonic plague, and enhancing her immunity.

Amidst severe misgivings from both Dunworthy and Ahrens, Kivrin goes through and the others make preparations to pick her up 2 weeks later. But something goes wrong and Badri, the university’s best tech who supervised the drop, falls ill just as soon as he finds Dunworthy. And Oxford goes into lockdown as a mysterious pandemic brings down those involved in Kivrin’s drop, one after another. The net, which allows the time-travel, works in a paradox where nothing that will change the course of history can get through. But something unforeseen has happened and no one is sure where Kivrin is. So what exactly happened here, and will they be able to get Kivrin back?

Kivrin finds herself transported to the Middle Ages but nothing is as she expected. The net was supposed to drop her near the village of Skendgate, close to Oxford, and her aim is to record everything she finds there so that when she returns she can help Dr. Montoya with her archeological dig. But she isn’t sure whether the trail she has found is the Oxford-Bath Road and whether the smattering of dwellings she spies down the hill is actually Skendgate. But she is suddenly overcome with fatigue and before she knows it, she is ill and someone has come to rescue her, and she finds herself in a household filled with fourteenth century people, in all their unwashed, superstitious glory. And she can’t understand them, their pronunciation differing from the Middle English she was taught. While Kivrin fears she will spend Christmas ill in bed instead of completing her research, something worse comes along and people begin to drop like flies. She should have landed in 1320, 28 years before the plague arrives in Oxford. But something has gone wrong.

She has a fever, but no buboes, and she isn’t coughing or vomiting. Just the fever.

In Doomsday Book Willis has created a complex, chaotic and thrilling tale mixing futuristic technology with old-world academic squabbling and melds it to the horrors of medieval society faced with the onslaught of the bubonic plague. It is seamless and the terror relentless. There is just a wonderful mixture of drama, speculation and comedy from a futuristic but still identifiable Oxford to a more earthy fourteenth century guise. I love the bit where Dr. Ahrens asks Kivrin whether she would like her nose cauterised as

the smells of the fourteenth century could be completely incapacitating, that we’re simply not used to excrement and bad meat and decomposition in this day and age. I told her nausea would interfere significantly with her ability to function.

And as Oxford in 2054 quickly buckles into a chaotic epicentre of disease control, Dunworthy, hounded by his secretary and a group of stranded American bellringers, finds a helper in Colin, Dr. Ahrens’ grand nephew, who injects a festive cheer in the nightmare from which he may be unable to rescure Kivrin. Colin is such a great character with his interjections of ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘necrotic’ which makes it seem as though he’s crawled out of an E. Nesbit book. And Kivrin is a protagonist that Willis can be proud of, strong, intelligent, scared and yet fearless; a true seeker of knowledge, with Dunworthy and Dr. Ahrens making formidable allies. As both Kivrin and Dunworthy battle through their respective timelines, will they both survive? And can Dunworthy bring his student back alive?

Doomsday Book has seen many years on my shelf and so many of my book blogging friends have entreated me to read this book and I wish I had listened to them earlier. It’s a magnificent story, far superior to so many time-traveling books and films I’ve seen over the years. I wish they’d make a live action adaptation of this but I fear they would spoil it. And boy am I glad Willis has written more novels in her Oxford Time Travel series. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered whether what we read in history books or watch in documentaries even come close to how life was really like in the past? Imagine studying history, really studying history by actually traveling to the past.

I’m off to read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear next.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

lavinia-portraitRIP350

Theft of Life

Imogen Robertson’s fifth volume in her historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther is probably her darkest yet. Theft of Life begins with the transplanting of Harriet and her children to Berkeley Square where their friends, Owen Graves and his wards, the Earl of Sussex, Jonathan, his sister Susan and their half-brother Eustache, are currently residing due to the children’s education. Crowther is also in London to present his new work on anatomy and Harriet has followed him to avoid her sister’s attempts at finding a suitable second husband for her.

No sooner are they settled in when Harriet’s senior footman, William, is witness to a body found near St. Paul’s, tied, stretched out and wearing a metal mask only a former slave would recognise. Shaken, William is reluctant to admit to the authorities the identity of the dead man, a notorious slave owner from the West Indies. And so Harriet and Crowther are called to examine the corpse, identified by William as a Mr. Trimnell, and are drawn into the dark, violent world of slavery that has bolstered and financed British trade, especially that of sugar.

Stories of slavery run by the British are few and far between. We are more familiar with films and books built on testaments of American slaves and I admire Robertson for tackling such a difficult subject head on. She reserves no punches and does not wallow in sentimentality. It’s brutal, horrific and tragic and she has drawn on historical sources to craft a story that is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of respectability. Set before the abolition of slavery in Britain, Robertson uses the testaments and stories of the free slaves, who have managed to carve out an independent life in England but who still retain the fear and nightmares from their past, and those who endeavoured to help them.

As Crowther and Harriet begin their investigation into Trimnell’s death which at first points to a former slave intent on revenge, Eustache is caught stealing a book and is sent to work off his punishment at Hinckley’s Bookshop run by Francis Glass, a free black man. When Francis’ beloved, Eliza Smith, dies in a suspicious fire in her bookshop one night, he is convinced that there was foul play. He had seen a wound in her eye and her body was cold to the touch before he was dragged away by the local constable and the shop collapsed. The social world which the rich and powerful inhabit in London is a small one and those with connections to the slave trade will at one time or another all congregate at the Jamaica Coffee House. And soon the two disparate events collide as Crowther, Harriet and Francis Glass begin to realise that what they are up against is a group of powerful people who will do anything to keep the status quo and, more importantly, their past evils buried and forgotten.

In Theft of Life, Robertson has once again crafted a gripping historical thriller, dark, pacey and heartbreaking. One of the things I like about Crowther and Harriet’s partnership is that it is based on mutual understanding and respect which has, gradually over time, turned into a deep friendship. The lack of sentimentality and easy romance which can be prevalent in this genre, and one which I admit I sometimes hanker after, is refreshingly missing here. I cannot wait for the next one in the series.

Previous novels in the series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones
Circle of Shadows

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

lavinia-portraitRIP350

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245

The third issue of Shiny New Books! is live and you can find my review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell there. So do check it out!

Bone Clocks

Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.

Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.

As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is only the tip of a war between gods.

Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with which most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.

Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.

I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.

You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.

I read this as part of Diversiverse, R.I.P. IX and #ReadWomen2014.

amdubanner-col2

lavinia-portraitRIP350

readwomen2014

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

17 September, 2014

fahrenheit 451

We are nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.

Why, why, WHY have I not read Ray Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, earlier? But then I pause and think to myself that maybe choosing it for my book group at this particular time was fortuitous. Living in an era where we are bombarded by information, the internet, the telly, celebrity gossip, news that masquerades as serious journalism, only proves to magnify Bradbury’s frightening dystopian vision of the world where books are considered dangerous and routinely torched, along with the houses that shield them. While I grew up in a time when we didn’t have the internet or tablets or even a computer in every household, it’s horrifying to think that in 15 years, we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be unplugged. I go to work, read a little on my commute, come home and then just zone out watching box sets or J-dramas on the internet, available 24/7. I have all this time in the evenings and yet I feel I have no time at all. Every single day. What am I doing?

This is precisely the question Guy Montag, Bradbury’s anti-hero, begins to ask himself when three incidents occur separately but simultaneously and coalesce, acting as a catalyst to a seed which has been planted in his almost lobotomised mind. The first is his meeting with Clarisse, a free-spirited, fey neighbour who strolls around looking at and questioning things. She is the first person in years who has shown an interest in Montag, this strange, quaint, seventeen year old girl, the first to ask him, ‘Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?’ The second is finding his wife, Mildred, overdosed and watching her stomach being pumped not by doctors but by routine service men making him question the level of unhappiness in this world when doctors no longer treated suspected suicides seriously. And the third incident is when he is called out to a suspected book hoarder to be faced by a determined woman who would torch herself together with her books than live in a world without them. These three incidents shake Montag’s equilibrium, sending him on a trajectory where he begins to question and really see the world in which people no longer value knowledge.

What gives Bradbury’s short novel such power is that Montag starts off as a proud fireman, one of the supposed gatekeepers of peace and morality, a little like Torquemada, a little like Savonarola. He wears his uniform, emblazoned with Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper ignites, with pride. But as his apathy erodes, he begins to question why knowledge has become so maligned. Why are books being burned? Why are people looked upon suspiciously if they go for a stroll or engage in idle chatter or even a friendly debate? Why do the firemen have mechanical hounds who will sniff out the sudden changes in DNA and will go to great lengths to find and neutralise people with books? And his changing behaviour sparks the suspicion of his fire chief, Beatty, full of the knowledge of all the books he’s burned, ready to twist anything Montag can say.

Sedated by a diet of sound bites and recycled pop-dramas, Montag’s fellow city dwellers have no time to question their lives or the impending war that is slowly unfolding. But Montag is unable to stop himself as he begins a journey of discovery that will lead him to lose everything and go on the run. And in doing so, he encounters several people, all trying to hold on to their humanity via the books they love including a group reminiscent of the railway hobos of the 1930s.

Even though practically everything’s airborne these days and most of the tracks are abandoned, the rails are still there, rusting. I’ve heard there are still hobo camps all across the country, here and there; walking camps they call them, and if you keep walking far enough and keep an eye peeled, they say there’s lots of old Harvard degrees on the tracks beyween here and Los Angeles. Most of them are wanted and hunted in the cities.

It is almost unbelievable that Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953. Every single sentence is relevant to our world today. What is most frightening is that the future he predicts is already happening.

As Bradbury himself warns in a more recent preface,

It had to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers? If the world widescreen basketballs and footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks and ventilators of the school room, who, after a while, will know or care?

A frightening thought indeed.

Each page in Fahrenheit 451 is a revelation, a recognition that if we don’t realise what is important, that knowledge, studying , reading, debating anchors us to humanity, then we are lost. And more importantly, reflecting on our actions. As one character in the novel says,

We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as know that and always have it around where we can see it some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.

Although I loved everything about this book and didn’t really find it dated considering it was written almost 60 years ago (it’s easy to substitute tv with the internet), I did find Bradbury’s portrayal of his female characters lacking in three dimensionality. They were used more as props rather that as fully realised characters, there to spur Montag on in his re-awakening. They were a tad too simple and stereotypical and may as well have been incidents rather than people. However, I have heard that the film version does flesh them out a bit.

Neverheless, Fahrenheit 451 is a powerful book with important ideas, and even though it was conceived during the McCarthy era when censorship was rife, it is still relevant in our current climate.

Do also check out Bradbury’s interview with the Paris Review.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

lavinia-portraitRIP350

R.I.P. IX is here!

5 September, 2014

lavinia-portraitRIP350

The only thing that makes the end of summer OK, is Carl’s wonderful R(eaders). I(imbibing). P(eril) Challenge which is celebrating it’s 9th year. It’s one of the first reading challenges in which I participated and I look forward to it every year. And although I may not post a wrap-up post each year, I love every minute of choosing and reading my list of books which are mainly from my shelves as well as seeing what others are dipping into. And how gorgeous is the artwork for this year’s challenge?

As usual, I’m hoping to read at least four books in the following categories: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural which, to be honest, are my favourite genres. So bring it on!

My pool of books from which I plan to read four (or more!) are:

The Fire by Katherine Neville – I loved The Eight which I read years ago.
The Abomination by Jonathan Holt – murder in Venice.
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard – completely blown away by her short stories so I need more – an Aztec mystery!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – just because it’s JKR!
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray – the nights are drawing in and I’m in need of something spookay.
Faithful Place by Tana French – I really need to get back into French’s writing.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – it’s just been shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger!
She Lover of Death by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin in the house!
A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris – the third mystery in a series featuring Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time travel and the Black Death!

Of course I’ll be adding and subtracting from this list, but who’s counting, right?

So will you be joining us? And, more importantly, what will YOU be reading?

ripnineperilfirst

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,117 other followers