Monday 15 October 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland II

Winter is coming, the nights are getting darker and the bookshops are getting busier. This can mean only one thing - a new Cecelia Ahern book! (Actually it means many things. Christmas. Crunchy autumn leaves. Woolly jumpers. Hot chocolate.) Though I am usually averse to chick-lit, Miss Ahern's novels come at just the right time, when I am in need of some reading material that is fluffy and comforting, but without being utterly mushy. And her book covers are so pretty! How can you resist something that looks like this?

One Hundred Names is an original concept: journalist Kitty Logan asks her dying friend and mentor what is the one story you always wanted to write? The only answer is a list of names, and Kitty has to search all across Dublin to find the story that links these hundred people. One Hundred Names is quite a short novel, and I wondered whether Kitty would actually meet all hundred people on the list. Of course she doesn't, but the characters she does meet are lovable and memorable, a selection of people of all walks of life. Ultimately, the great mystery of the novel turned out not to be very surprising at all - I guessed it early on, but this in no way affected my enjoyment of the story. This book is all about the journey and the people, with an uplifting message that everybody, without exception, has a story to tell.

In between the other books I've been reading in the last couple of weeks, I have been spending some time with the Andreas girls in Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. This is a quite gentle tale of three sisters, very different in temperament, who return to the family home when their mother falls sick, each bringing their own struggles and secrets with them. The Weird Sisters was quite a slow read, but by the end I found myself really invested in the Andreas family. Rose, Bean and Cordy are really Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, named for Shakespearean heroines by their obsessed father.

The family is an eccentric one, structured around Mr Andreas' love of the Bard which, though not fully shared by his daughters, plays a huge part in their identity. Trivial matters and deep truths are wrapped in a blanket of quotations - a delight for a literature-lover like myself who also sees the world through the lens of story, but I can see how it could prove irritating to a reader of a different disposition.

What stands out for The Weird Sisters among other family stories is the narration. Though scenes featuring one sister is a standard third-person, the sisterly relationship is almost a fourth character and is a fluid, omniscient "we" that could refer to any two of the trio, or all three. The sisters bicker and fight, are filled with envy and resentment for each other, but their identity is as one part of three. A crucial theme of the story is of the three girls finding where they belong in the world individually, not just in relation to the other two.

After reading a novel with its plethora of Shakespearean quotes and references, I had to return to the Bard himself, and so to the library I went to look at its selection of plays. I have read, studied and watched several of the Comedies and Tragedies, but I had never read any of Shakespeare's History plays, so I chose to read Julius Caesar. Much to the disappointment of my father, I have next to no knowledge of Roman history, so I went into Caesar with only the knowledge that the title character is murdered. In actual fact, Julius Caesar only appears in about three scenes of his play, and his death occurs halfway through. The story revolves around the conspiracy and assassination of Caesar - the build-up to the event, and its aftermath. If there is a protagonist, it must be Brutus, moralist and betrayer, but there are no heroes, only villains and anti-heroes. Reading this play, I found it difficult to take sides, but only impartially watch a historical event replayed in iambic pentameter. Still, Shakespeare humanises the great names of history, showing multi-faceted characters. Take Caesar: arrogant before the men, gentler and perhaps more vulnerable at home with his wife, shown for his strengths as well as his weaknesses in soliloquy, and all this in three short scenes.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not for the page, but I get as much pleasure from reading his plays as I do watching them, being able to enjoy the poetry and philosophy of his words at my own leisure, rereading favourite lines or passages I did not understand the first time. But although Shakespeare has a reputation for being long-winded and impenetrable, I do not find him so. Caesar is a relatively short play, without any padding, but each scene building plot, tension and character, as tightly-crafted as the best thrillers.

I read the Arden Shakespeare edition (pictured) but was not happy with the method of footnoting. This is evidently a study edition, with lots of useful notes taking up half the page - but I prefer to read the play straight through, with notes at the end of the book instead, where I can look them up if I want, or not if I don't want. They were not only a distraction, but also presumed upon the play not being read as a thriller, being free with the spoilers for the benefit of students on a reread (if it is not incongruous to talk of "spoilers" for a 400-year-old play whose events were centuries old even at the time of writing.)


  1. You know, I have never heard of this Cecelia Ahern person you speak so highly of! Probably because it is adult and chic lit - two genres I am normally not drawn to. But I am really loving that premise! Very cute.

  2. I don't read much chick lit, but Cecelia Ahern keeps the shoes, sex and shopping to a minimum! My favourite book by her is "The Book of Tomorrow" which has a magical plot and a teenage protagonist - it would probably fit just as well in the YA category as adult fiction. I recommend it.


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