Today I thought I'd dash off some thoughts on some of my recent reads, as since school ended I've had a whole lot more time to dedicate to the pursuit of literature. There's nothing I love more than just lazing around on a summer afternoon with a good book, and I've made quite a lot of progress on my mission of reading everything on my bookshelf before the end of the year. Some of the books I've read recently and I'm going to prattle on about here are The Girls by Lori Lansens, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and Ophelia by Lisa Klein.
The Girls by Lori Lansens
This book was really quite remarkable and I enjoyed it a lot. It tells the story of a pair of cranipagus twins, which means that the two girls, Rose and Ruby, are conjoined at the skull. This was really interesting in itself and there was quite a lot of time dedicated to the difficulties of living with your sister attached to your head, but what I loved was that the characters were so much more than their condition. The story is told through alternating chapters, as Rose is a budding author and wants to tell the story of her life, but soon realises she can't tell her own story without telling her sister's and asks her to write a few chapters too. Their narrative voices are distinctly different and complement each other, as Rose writes like a writer with metaphors and imagery, while Ruby writes plainly and takes a matter of fact approach.
The chronology is a little hard to follow, as Rose goes backwards and forwards in time as she relates episodes of not only their life together but the lives of their adoptive parents (or aunt and uncle), who are colourful characters. The details of their childhood on Aunt Lovey's family farm really brought the place to life, but there was no danger of romanticism as we also hear about their physical challenges and particular Ruby's severe travel sickness which takes its toll on both girls. I really enjoyed the part about their trip to Slovakia, their uncle's homeland, as it took the girls out of their comfortable community and addressed a lot of issues about how conjoined twins are perceived in different cultures.
All in all The Girls was a truly fascinating and educational read. Not too far into the book it is revealed why Rose has a sudden urge to recount her life, and this makes for an emotional and heart-breaking end. I would recommend this to everyone.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a tale of poverty and hardship, but also of hope and coming of age, which in fairness redeems the depressing side quite a bit. I read this on the beach on holiday and the story really was quite at odds with the setting of palm trees, blue sea and sun! The main character is Francie Nolan, born in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century to a relatively poor Irish-Austrian family - over the course of around 5 years we see her grow up from what can only be described as a street urchin to a young woman ready for college. Francie has a vivid imagination and loves to read, so through her thoughts, ideas and feelings we build up a distinct image of her character.
This book has been compared with Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, which I read for school last year and enjoyed a reasonable amount. Thankfully the poverty of the Nolan family isn't quite as devastating as the McCourts: they work hard and struggle to pay the rent and feed themselves, but there's more of a focus on hope and social progress, as Francie moves to a better school than the local establishment and gets a well-paid job before finally getting the chance to attend college. I only realised after finishing this that it's considered an American classic, and while I think I can see why and enjoyed it overall, I don't think I'd quite rank it up there with such works as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein
In retrospect perhaps it was a little too soon after exams to read anything Hamlet-related for fun, but I did enjoy this despite the memories of revision it dredged up. As the title suggests, this is Ophelia's story, spanning from her childhood through to the events of the actual play and (spoiler alert!) beyond. In my opinion the last third of the book (which takes place after the events at Elsinore) was the weakest, because the author took the story into her own hands and invented that section entirely - but I'm probably extremely biased.
As a dedicated Hamlet connoisseur (hah) I was immensely sceptical of this before reading it, but in fairness it did manage to paint a convincing picture of Ophelia's side of the story. The author imagines her childhood in the nearby village of Elsinore, where the little Ophelia prefers a bit of rough and tumble with the boys of the village to any ladylike activities. Soon her family is elevated from their poor status as Ophelia and Laertes's socially ambitious father passes valuable information to the king, and as a reward they go to live in the castle. Ophelia is then noticed by Queen Gertrude and becomes one of her ladies in waiting, which accounts for her presence in the royal court.
What this book essentially does is fill in the gaps, and there are, notoriously, a great deal of them in Shakespeare's longest and perhaps most famous play. It provides answers for some of the biggest questions raised, which in turn can affect your reading of the play and the characters' motivations - so while I enjoyed having these little theories fictionalised to complement the actual story, I think it's important to remember that that's all they do and that they ought to be distinguished from the original play so as not to influence one's understanding of it. In short, I'm glad I didn't read this before my exam because it would have confused the story for me, but it was certainly interesting to read afterwards. I think a certain knowledge of the play is essential for a deeper reading of this book.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if you've come across any of these!