Sunday, 10 August 2014

Recent Reads #1


Today I'm going to be discussing the books I've been reading recently, and giving a few of my thoughts and opinions on them. We get assigned our school book lists for the following year at the end of term in June, and I always read my English books over the summer primarily to get ahead, and because duh, it's books I didn't have to pay for myself. This summer all our schoolbooks were sent to my grandparents' house in England, so I only got hold of them very recently, meaning I haven't got as far through the list as I usually would, but I've read a few and I thought I'd talk about them here.

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

First up is Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane. The theme for our English course this year and last year is 'family and community ties', and this fits inside that box nicely. It's set in Northern Ireland during the 1940s and 50s, and chronicles the childhood of a young boy growing up in post-war Derry, including the tensions in a city divided by religious and political conflict. Interwoven into the story is a family secret which is darker and more complex than the boy could ever have guessed, and the story of how he gradually uncovers it and deals with the realisation. It is structured into three parts, each with two chapters, and each chapter is divided into titled sub sections such as 'Grandfather' and 'American Cities'.

I had high hopes for this from all the glowing reviews on the back cover, describing it as "the work of a master story-teller" and "almost impossible to put down", but somehow it never clicked with me. This may have been because I started it, read a chapter and then went on a five day residential course where I didn't read any of it, so when I got back I was totally lost and decided to start again from the beginning. Despite this slightly shaky start, there were moments where I was hooked on the poetic prose and in particular a section of a chapter describing a Maths lesson in 195,  in which the witty and inventive dialogue glued me to the page. Sadly however, that proved to be the highlight of the book for me, and the rest was decidedly depressing and difficult to follow. I'm also not too knowledgeable when it comes to the history of Northern Ireland, and I think a sounder background of that would have helped considerably with my understanding of the political side of the novel, which the story is very much structured around.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

If I thought Reading in the Dark had glowing reviews, that was nothing compared to A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's described as "a triumph", "vivid and compelling", "a beautifully crafted and disturbing story", and "a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting tale of physical and psychological violence", and I can safely say it deserves all that praise and more.

Set in Afghanistan, the story begins in 1964 and ends in 2003, spanning some of the country's most turbulent years. In Part One, the main character is Mariam, the daughter of a rich man from Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, and his ex-housekeeper, both of whom now live in a tiny house on the outskirts of the city. Mariam idolises her father, and waits eagerly for his weekly visits, but as she gets older her curiosity about the city and the rest of her father's legitimate family grows, and eventually she makes the trip into Herat. From there the truth about her father's love for her is revealed, and after her mother's death she finds herself married off to a man 30 years older than her and sent hundreds of miles away to live with him. In Part Two another character is introduced, Laila, and her chapters alternate with Mariam's until they finally meet when Laila's family is killed in a bomb explosion. From then on a friendship grows between them, and thrives throughout the Taliban's regime despite the daily struggle against starvation, brutality and fear.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book, far less get emotionally attached to any characters. This is largely because I read Khaled Hosseini's first novel The Kite Runner a few years ago and absolutely hated it, to the point where I didn't even finish it, and expected more of the same from this. But while books should never be judged by their covers, it's equally risky to judge them by their predecessors, as I found myself both furiously turning the pages of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the time I reached the final page. It's hard to do this novel justice with words, as there is little anyone can say to impart the enormity of the suffering Afghan women endured throughout these years, which is crystallised so realistically in Mariam and Laila. Any potential readers should be warned that there are more than a few scenes of violence, domestic or otherwise, including bombings and beatings, but equally there are beautiful moments of love and hope, all culminating in an immensely powerful story.

 Het Achterhuis by Anne Frank

Het Achterhuis (The Annex) is a book I'll actually be reading in Dutch this year, but anyone reading this will probably know it better as The Diary of a Young Girl. I won't be giving a plot summary or anything for this book, because if you don't know the story I don't know where you've been since the English translation version appeared in 1952.

I read the English version years ago, and have done again many times since, and it was with much excitement that I realised I'd be reading Anne Frank's diary in the original untranslated Dutch. So I thought I'd give it a go and at least get an idea for the level of difficulty I'll have to cope with, as although I've been learning Dutch for 5 years Anne uses colloquialisms and obviously her diary deals with a lot of complicated topics. The verdict? It's tough going, and although I usually get the gist of what she's saying, it helps immensely to know the story well in the first place - a few times I've actually had to get the English version out and skim over an entry after reading the Dutch, just to make sure I got it all. All this means it's taking me a while to read, and I doubt very much that I'll get all the way to the end before I admit defeat for the time being, although obviously I'll have to read it at some point. I would plough on, except I have the rest of my English books to get through this summer and not all that much time to do it in.

But more interestingly, I was fascinated to identify the differences between the two texts, which are easy enough to spot when they're both open side by side. Whole sentences are left out of the English version, and little details like names of streets are changed: for instance, Anne tells us that Betty Bloemendaal "lives on an obscure street in West Amsterdam, and none of us knows where it is", while in the Dutch version the street is given as "Jan Klansenstraat". Admittedly it's not a hugely significant difference, but that's just one I happened to notice in the first few entries, and who knows what other variations there are in the rest of the book.

That's all for now,


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