Well-Read Women by Samantha Hahn

Having been a fan of Samantha Hahn’s beautiful illustrations for years, I was excited to see that she has a book coming out tomorrow. I was even more excited when I saw the title of it: Well-Read Women – Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines. The book features portraits of 50 fictional heroines, along with quotes. From what I’ve seen so far it looks like a very good collection of female characters with for example Clarissa Dalloway, Scarlett O’Hara, Ophelia, Lolita, Hester Prynne and Blanche DuBois. I’m really curious to see who else made the list and to see all of the illustrations. I only hope that there’s a bit more diversity than what’s come across in the previews. My favourites from the ones I’ve seen so far are: Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar, and finally Anna Karenina. (I really have to read that book soon!)

HollyGolightlyDaisyBuchananEstherGreenwoodAnnaKareninaImages from: Chronicle Books via BUST.

Light, funny books

Although I usually prefer to read the classics, sometimes I get an urge for something more modern. When that is the case I tend to opt for fluffy books like essay collections and celebrity memoirs. The funnier, the better. Let’s start with Caitlin Moran, a British columnist at The Times.

Caitlin MoranLast year everybody seemed to be talking about her book How To Be a Woman. It’s basically a battle cry for feminism and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything she has to say about it, I can easily get behind her attempt to explain why feminism is (sadly) more relevant than ever. It’s a very accessible book so I hope that people who wouldn’t otherwise read about women’s rights read this book and feel inspired to get involved. As for me, I thought it was interesting to read about her working class upbringing because I feel like that class perspective is something we don’t always hear so much about. But most of all, her writing is just so entertaining that anything she writes about is bound to be interesting. Her enthusiasm comes across very well and as a reader I feel drawn in and becomes just as excited as she is. That’s why I was happy to read her second book as well: Moranthology, which is a collection of her writing over the years in a mix of articles and essays. She writes about everything from Sherlock Holmes to politics. What I find refreshing is how unpretentious she is, and I like the way she embraces pop culture and takes it seriously. As for the political pieces, I appreciate what she wrote about libraries and why it’s a bad thing to close them down: “A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.” Yes, yes, yes! TinaFeyRachelDratchMindyKalingThen there’s of course Tina Fey, whose book Bossypants seems to have been universally well-received when it was published a few years ago. I can see why because it is really funny and I enjoyed reading about her years at SNL and about her experiences as a woman in the film/comedy world. Overall the book felt a little impersonal but I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing. The book is very entertaining and that’s certainly good enough.

Someone who has written a more personal memoir is Rachel Dratch, whose book Girl Walks Into a Bar… is surprisingly serious.  Since Dratch is a comedic actress I guess I expected a funny book and nothing else but it turned out to be more than that. There’s talk about disappointment (both personal and professional) and waiting for things to finally come together. There’s still a lot of humour but that’s not the best part of the book to me. I found it interesting read about her struggles in the TV/film industry, for example. To me that’s always more worthwhile than reading about someone who’s only experienced success.

Mindy Kaling’s book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) is another personal but funny memoir and out of the three it’s the one that resonated the most with me. To use a worn-out expression: reading her book felt like talking with a friend. She doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously and as a result her stories come across as very relatable. Aside from writing about her upbringing and career, she also writes about her opinions on various topics in a way that’s always funny and never too deep.

Speaking of celebrity memoirs, I just have to add that I’m so excited about Amy Poehler’s upcoming book! To be published next year I think. I can’t wait to read it.

DavidSedarisAnd finally, there’s David Sedaris. For years I’d been hearing about how funny his writing is but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I got around to actually reading one of his books: Me Talk Pretty One Day. Happily, it lived up to the hype because I found it very funny. Especially the essays where he writes about being in France and trying to learn French made me laugh so much. Anybody who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language will know exactly what he’s talking about… The whole book is very entertaining and I’m glad to have so many other Sedaris books to dig into now!

Edith Wharton

Edith WhartonEdith Wharton is one of the authors that I keep coming back to. I think she’s a master at creating fascinating characters, especially female ones. They’re always complex and never perfect. On the contrary, they’re often annoying but I actually appreciate that. It’s much more interesting than reading about people who are only good and selfless. Like many of Wharton’s novels, The Age of Innocence (1920) takes place during the Golden Age of New York. It’s about Newland Archer as he falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman stained by scandal, while he is engaged to the more conventional May Welland. He is therefore forced to choose between his desire for love and his desire to do what’s expected of him in the eyes of society. It’s a very good book.

Ethan Frome (1911) is very different from the other Wharton books I’ve read. There’s no fancy New York setting. Instead, it’s bleak and grim and set in a small town. As a contrast to her other work, I like that. What it has in common with the rest of her books though is the theme of repressed love. Ethan Frome is unhappily married to Zeenie when he falls in love with Mattie Smith, a young woman they’ve hired to help out around the house. It’s hopeless from the start and while it’s not an uplifting novel, it’s beautifully writen and the atmosphere is haunting.

The House of Mirth (1905) centers around one of my all-time favourite fictional heroines: Lily Bart. She is completely fearless in her struggle to attain the good life she thinks she deserves. In order to achieve this she plays along with the rules of society, but only to a certain point. In other ways she refuses to conform and although she pays a high price for it, at least she never compromises her integrity. That’s not to say she is flawless, because she really isn’t – not at all. But she is consistent and I find that admirable. If you only read one Wharton novel, I think it should be this one.

The Custom of the Country (1913) is such a clever satire of shallow ambition and the longing to get ahead in society, as illustrated by the triumphs and failures of Undine Spragg. Although she is the main character, she is not the least bit likeable and as I was reading the book it struck me how rare that is. To have an unlikeable protagonist like that, it’s actually pretty refreshing. Undine is spoiled, careless and most of all selfish. She longs for more money and status and will let nothing stand in her way towards her goals. The problem is that when she reaches her goals she still finds herself unhappy and that is the most interesting aspect of the book. It’s such a good illustration of that emptiness you sometimes feel when you get what you want.

Summer (1917) takes place in a small and rather remote town in New England and tells the story of Charity Royall, a young inexperienced woman who falls in love and has a passionate affair with Lucius Harney, an architect from New York. Even as their relationship developes it becomes clear how difficult it is for either of them to go against the futures that have been set up for them. They both have duties that they can’t ignore and their different backgrounds make it even harder. I thought I would really like this book but much to my disappointment I ended up finding it pretty boring.

I think it’s interesting to compare Edith Wharton with Jane Austen because in some ways their work is similar. They both highlight how limited women’s choices were in the early 19th and 20th century, respectively. The main difference is that while Austen’s novels end in happiness and marriage, at the end of Wharton’s books love (and happiness) is always just out of reach. There’s something about that sadness (in the midst of such luxury) that I find compelling.

Book Q&A

This is a fun Q&A that I came across on Sarah Says Read. I love filling these things out so I thought I would participate.

Book Q&A Rules

1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
3. Answer the questions below
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you’ve tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you’ve taken part!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

What are you reading right now?

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (so good!) and Frost by Thomas Bernhard.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?

Yes, but it depends on what’s available at the library. My first choice would be Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell. Anything by David Sedaris or Robert Musil would work too.

What five books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?

Middlemarch – George Eliot, A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy, Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Little Women – Louisa May Alcott. Most of these are so big and I think that’s why I keep postponing them. This is just the tip of the iceberg though – my to-read list is so long!

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?

Bust (a feminist magazine about culture) and Språktidningen (a Swedish magazine about language and words).

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown. This book gave me absolutely nothing.

What book seemed really popular but you didn’t like?

The Trial by Franz Kafka. I loved The Metamorphosis so I had very high expectations for The Trial but I ended up feeling disappointed.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?

The Sorrows of Young Werther by J.W von Goethe. Seriously, read it.

What are your three favourite poems?

I’m not a huge fan of poetry… I actually can’t even think of three poems that I’ve really loved.

Where do you usually get your books?

The library, always the library.

When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?

Not that I can think of. I just remember reading a lot.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was too good to put down?

That doesn’t happen to me a lot, not because I don’t read good books but because I usually just get too sleepy (annoyingly enough!). But the book I’m reading right now (And Then There Was None) is exciting enough for me to stay up later at least.

Have you ever “faked” reading a book?

No, I don’t see the point and I would be afraid of someone finding out that I hadn’t actually read it.

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?

Bought? No. Borrowed from the library? Kind of. Well, not just because of the cover but it could be a factor, yes.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

Minoes by Annie M.G Schmidt. I read it so many times that I can still remember many details from it. But mostly I just remember the atmosphere of the book. I get nostalgic just thinking about it!

What book changed your life?

I would say The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe because it made me look at the world differently. It’s the book that turned me into a Romantic.

What is your favourite passage from a book?

So many to choose from! But off the top of my head I’m thinking it must be the ending to The Stranger. It’s quite a long passage though so I can’t quote everything, but here’s a part of it (it’s not a spoiler):

“It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. “

Oh, I love The Stanger so much.

Who are your top five favourite authors?

Jane Austen, Mary McCarthy, Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë and Edith Wharton.

What book has no one heard about but should read?

Birds of America by Mary McCarthy. More people need to discover the brilliance of Mary McCarthy!

What books are you an ‘evangelist’ for?

Classics in general and Victorian novels in particular.

What are your favourite books by a first time author?

I take this to mean debut books, and The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s debut book so that should count, right? Also, The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

What is your favourite classic book?

If I had to pick one (and that’s very difficult!) I guess it would have to be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Five other notable mentions?

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell, The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins, The Awakening – Kate Chopin, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë, Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë.

As for tagging others, I’ll do as Sarah and just say that if you’re reading this, consider yourself tagged. :)

Austrian National Library

Last weekend I went to see the State Hall (Prunksaal) in the Austrian National Library here in Vienna. It’s such a grand place, made even better with the smell of old books. The library houses 200,000 of them, from 1501 to 1850. For a book lover it’s really amazing to walk around there!

Prunksaal by weisserstier on FlickrPrunksaal by mahesh_f on Flickr

Prunksaal by jrvosse on Flickr

Prunksaal by Underpuppy on Flickr

If I had a flower…

If I had a flower“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you… I could walk through my garden forever.” – Alfred Tennyson

Jane Austen

Like so many others, I love the books of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice was the first one I read and since then I’ve been a fan. I’ve identified with the characters, been impressed with the knife-sharp observations and finally, cheered for the romantic happy endings. I always take pleasure in entering the world she’s created in her novels. By now I’ve read them all and have no new ones to look forward to (sadly) but I’m glad to be able to re-read them at least. Which I will, many times.

Jane AustenSense and Sensibility (1811) is about two very different sisters: Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. The book deals with their struggle to navigate between the often conflicting notions of love, happiness and status. It’s actually my least favourite Austen novel even though I can’t put my finger on why exactly. I know a lot of people love it but I just didn’t really fall for it. Pride and Prejudice (1813) on the other hand is one of my all time favourite books. At the center of it is of course the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. To me it is the love story. At the same time the book is about so much more than love. Like all Austen books it clearly illustrates the role of women in society and the limited choices they had at the time. Every time I re-read it (which I’ve done twice so far) I realise just how brilliant it is. It’s so complex but also very funny. And the characters! I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I were to list my favourites. The main reason I enjoy re-reading the book is because there are so many interesting subplots and characters that it seems impossible to get tired or bored with it. Mansfield Park (1814) focuses on the story of Fanny Price, a girl who is destined for poverty but is instead brought up with her rich cousins. As an outcast among her wealthy relatives she clings to the one person who is nice to her: her cousin Edmund. They develop a close friendship that is put at risk when the family gets a visit from Mary and Henry Crawford, two charming but irresponsible siblings who stir things up for everybody. While it’s not one of my favourite Austen books, there are parts of it that are very intriguing and entertaining.

Jane Austen booksThe plot in Emma (1815) is so clever. It details how Emma Woodhouse, naive but well-meaning, plays the role of matchmaker for her friends. At the same time she claims to have no need for romance herself. This is true because in contrast to Austen’s other heroines, Emma is rich enough to live independently without marriage. However, as the story developes it becomes clear that it’s more complicated than that. While Emma makes mistakes and is sometimes annoying, you can’t help but like her because she’s so charming and full of good intentions. Northanger Abbey (1817) is another one of my favourites, partly because I think there is something so endearing about the main character, Catherine Morland. She is innocent, sweet and just normal. The first sentence sets the tone: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.” The novel itself is a brilliant satire of Gothic novels in general and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe in particular. The story revolves around Catherine’s time at Northanger Abbey, a mansion she is invited to by the man she is in love with, Henry Tilney. Her time there is influenced by all the Gothic novels she’s read because she sees mystery all around her. It’s a very funny book to begin with but it’s even easier to appreciate it once you’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho, so I really recommend doing that. Finally, there’s Persuasion (1817). It’s hard to explain why I like this book so much but there is just something about the atmosphere in it. It’s autumnal. At 27, Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine and in a sense it’s refreshing to read about someone who is more grown-up and mature in her ways. Early in the story we learn that when Anne was younger she regretfully broke off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer who has now returned. The book deals with regret, longing and yes, persuasion. It’s very beautiful from beginning to end.

What’s your favourite Jane Austen book?