The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I’m not sure what to call this book. Maybe a psychological thriller covers it best, but in truth this is not a book that is easily put in a category. It’s about a murder. On the very first page, we learn who the victim is, who the murderers are (the narrator amongst them) and that they got away with it. The mystery that remains is: why and how could it happen?

Richard Papen tells the story – the only story he will ever be able to tell, as he says it – of some dramatic events he was involved in when he was in college in the eighties. They all pivot around one terrible moment, when on a spring afternoon a group of students, including Richard, waited for one of their best friends in a remote spot and pushed him into a ravine. The first half of the book is a recounting of the events that lead up to the murder, the second half describes the aftermath.

Richard is a rather nondescript young man from a small suburb in California with a strong wish to better his fortune. After attending two years of college in his hometown, against the wishes of his parents, who want him to come work for his father, he transfers to a small liberal arts college in Vermont. It is as far away from the West Coast as he can manage without leaving the country. He loves his new surroundings: the relatively old buildings of Hampden College, the lush landscape, the mountains and the seasons. The most fascinating thing in the whole college is a group of five students who study Ancient Greek with an eccentric old teacher called Julian Morrow. They are Henry Winter, a tall and serious intellectual, Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, a cheery, all-American boy, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, stylish, orphaned twins, and Francis Abernathy, a slender, elegant young man with flaming red hair.

They seem nothing alike, yet they form a clique and hardly interact with other people on campus. Richard, who has taken a few years of Greek before, is determined to get into Julian Morrow’s exclusive little class. When he does, he slowly starts to be accepted by the group he admires so much, even though, as it turns out later, they don’t let him share in everything they do. After most of the secrets are eventually uncovered, after several months, Richard can’t imagine his life without his new friends anymore. He hardly hesitates in joining Henry, Charles, Camilla and Francis on the day they wait for Bunny to take one of his hikes and, surprising him in a clearing, push him over the edge of the ravine.

Although it’s April, a heavy snowfall covers Vermont that night. Instead of people finding Bunny’s body immediately, as was the plan, it takes two weeks before the snow has melted and he is found by a girl walking her dog. In the meantime the police and the FBI have been involved, the college is in uproar, search parties scour the woods from dawn to dusk, the entire Corcoran family has flown in from all over the country and the media have covered every possible link to the disappearance of young Edmund Corcoran. The group of friends has to pretend to be as baffled as everyone else. They join the search parties and mourn for Bunny with his large family at his funeral. Meanwhile, the effect of what they have done pulls them apart and slowly eats away at every one of them. They retreat into silence, drink, drugs, panic attacks and mutual suspicion until the built up tension finally leads to a new blow-up. It turns out that, although the police never discovered the truth about Bunny’s death, they didn’t really ‘get away with it’ after all. What remains of their lives will forever be about that tragedy in April.

At first glance, the story seems to play out along the somewhat cliché lines of rich, eccentric, untouchable boys and girls who drink too much and have no sense of responsibility, doing outrageous things while quoting from literature and getting away with it because they are rich, eccentric and untouchable. Literature is filled with characters like these, but Donna Tartt really adds something to the trope. The boys and girl in The Secret History are young and intelligent and imaginative, a dangerous combination of qualities. They are dreamers who essentially believe themselves to be immortal, making them vulnerable and callous at the same time. I would call them pretentious, and maybe they are, but their search for beauty and some higher way of living is quite earnest. They spend happy weekends in the enormous house of Francis’ aunt, Sunday evenings having dinner in Charles’ and Camilla’s apartment and hours of stimulating conversation around the table in Julian’s office. That happiness slips away, at first almost unnoticeably, after a serious error in judgement and the agonizing months that follow it. So well does Tartt describe the group’s obsessions and fears, that a frightening voice enters your mind saying ‘well, Bunny has to die, because it would break my heart if he didn’t and the perfection got spoiled’. Engrossed in the book, I told Thura: “I hate that boy. I’m ready for him to be murdered.”
“Well, you’re not a very good Christian,” she said and she was right. However, it is important to note that the story is not a celebration of moral ambiguity (which I dislike) but a warning against it.

I started this book gullibly believing everything was just as Richard described it. But what you must realise is that a first person narrator is always biased. Even though Richard sounds honest and smart, even though he analyses his own actions and those of others critically, part of him tries to make the murder sound acceptable. Once you realise this, you start to wonder why Richard writes it all down. The whole thing starts to sound like a subtle plea from a burdened conscience or, perhaps, a coping mechanism.

The clearest example of Richard’s bias is his description of the Classics teacher, Julian. He admires him greatly, loves him even, and the others do as well. Julian is apparently a charming, warm person of great intellect. He rejects modernity and teaches his six pupils to be great classical thinkers, unimpeded by mediocrity and arbitrary social rules of the twentieth century. He might be a little manipulative, Richard admits near the end of the book. People have said of him that he was actually cold, selfish and a coward – but Richard still loves him. For me, reading between the lines, Julian is a menacing presence in the background of the entire book. He seems to choose his students because they are misfits, unrooted and insecure. He demands to teach them all their subjects and be their mentor as well, gaining full control over their development. He tells bewitching stories about beauty and life and the sublime. And when it really comes to it, he drops his pupils like stones. He is like a puppet master, feigning naivety but knowing damn well that he lives out his amoral ideals through his students. I think that a good part of the disastrous events in the story can be attributed to Julian’s influence, but we’ll never be sure. Donna Tartt only hints at his power through the distorted lens of Richard’s account.

There was one detail in the story that irked me a little. Julian apparently has quite a glamorous past and at some point Richard learns that he knows the family of the ‘Shah of Isram’, who have been exiled and most of them murdered after a revolution in Isram. This fictional country is probably modelled on Iran and the 1979 revolution, but it feels weird to have such an obviously fictional detail as a non-existent country in an otherwise very realistically written book. Of course, Hampden College is fictional as well, but it’s quite easy to imagine that a small college you’ve never heard of exists in some remote place. Moreover, Hampden plays a very important role in the story while the story of Isram is mentioned only once or twice and has nothing to do with the plot. In one of the last chapters another fictional country is mentioned, in Africa this time. I can’t remember the context, but again, it struck me as a discord. What I am trying to say so very clumsily is that within the fictional universe of The Secret History, this detail seems off.

Apart from that, I have nothing but praise for this novel (Tartt’s first, if you can believe it). It’s original and dark, with a wonderful writing style and not overly sentimental or theatrical. The characters are mostly terrible people in some way, even the minor characters, and still you sympathise. Although I would not recommend committing or covering up a murder, storywise I appreciate the characters’ dedication to the chosen course. They feel terrible for killing Bunny, but realise they need to stick to their plan once they have decided to not tell the police. Characters in books and films who talk about feeling guilty all the time but are too cowardly to give themselves up are usually tiresome, in my opinion. This kind of originality is what makes this story so compelling. I can imagine that some people feel the story is unnecessarily long or slow and it might not suit everyone. I suspect that to enjoy it, you must share to some extent in what Richard calls his fatal flaw: ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. If you recognise that stupid longing for beauty in everything, you will love this book.

George Gently Award for murder and the sheer amount of cigarettes smoked

Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York, 1992)

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Jo Robin

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Sometimes it is difficult to say in stories as well as in real life who is the villain, who is the good guy, and who is a victim of circumstances. This is especially difficult, because most people are a bit of everything, and most people have at least some skeletons in their closet. Sometimes those skeletons lead people to commit bad deeds out of frustration, anger, disappointment or any other reason. However, that does not exonerate the bad deeds. In the end, we are all responsible for our own actions, how understandable they might be. Frankenstein is a story about taking responsibility for one’s own actions and how circumstances can change a person. It shows how the decision of one man, Victor Frankenstein, to create a creature, and how he decides to deal with the aftermath, can change the lives of many people around him. Also, it shows how the creature’s attitude toward life changes, through everything he experiences in his life.

Victor Frankenstein has been interested in alchemy since he was a young boy. As an adolescent, he goes to university in Germany and there he develops an interest in the natural sciences. He develops the idea to create a humanoid creature to see if he can create life. As quick as possible, Victor does exactly do that. However, the first gaze he puts upon the creature frightens him because he finds the creature hideous. He runs away and when he returns the creature has disappeared.

The creature, feeling rejected by his maker, goes out into the world to find human connection. He is rejected everywhere he goes because his looks scare people and make them believe he is a demon. This is most devastating for him when even the family in whose wall he has lived for months reject him and chase him away. He felt he had a connection to them because through observing them he learned how to speak, read and write. That connection is not mutual though, because the family did not know he was there. When he announces himself they get frightened and chase him away. Through all that rejection the creature turns bitter. When he and Victor see each other again years later he tries to find answers and companionship from Victor. When none is forthcoming, the creature turns violent and starts to take revenge on his creator. One of the ways he does that is by killing the people close to Victor.

One of the main characters is Victor Frankenstein. Throughout the book, he is convinced he is the good guy and that the creature’s violent actions are part of his character. Victor has the attitude that all bad things happen to him, instead of realising his own role in the events. When he created the ‘monster’, he ran away after all. He also does nothing to either placate the creature or to finish him off once and for all but decides to remain passive. Most of the tragedy in this book could have been averted if Victor took more responsibility for his actions. What did he expect to happen when he created life? Another thing that annoyed me about him is that he is a bit dim. The ending could have been prevented if he had thought for a second longer. This does not make him a bad character though, he was well-written. I just did not like him much.

The creature is kind at the beginning and I feel a lot of sympathy and pity for him. Maybe that is some lingering urge to love the dark boys with a golden heart from YA paranormal romances from my teenage years, but I always feel the creature is misunderstood. Initially, his biggest character flaw is being too eager. The repulsion he gets from other people is because of his looks, and I’ve always wondered how ugly he must be to get that reaction. Maybe that makes more sense in the era it is written in, when there was more superstition. The fact remains that he only becomes violent when he is rejected and disappointed time after time. That does not justify his actions but makes them understandable at least.

In the end, the moral of the story is not that it sucks to be ugly. It is to be careful what you create and to be respectful to people who frighten you at first glance. It’s not the creature’s look or personality that makes him dangerous, but the reaction other people have towards him. He was born with the desire to be loved, but everywhere he goes he only finds rejection. Maybe it was Mary Shelley’s intention to show what happens if we react based on first impressions instead of logical reasoning. Although, I have to admit that it is creepy to discover a man has been living in your wall for months. His socially-unacceptable behaviour should not be a reason to dehumanise him but to educate and try to understand. If we can’t try to understand seemingly alien behaviours of other people we’re lost as humans.

Another point Shelley makes is about the possibilities of science and whether we should do everything we can. Yes, Victor proved we can create life out of nothing, but did it lead to something good? The creature is not happy, Victor is not happy, nobody is happy. Victor did not consider the consequences of his experiments and proofed unwilling to face the responsibility. In that way, he put a creature on this world and doomed it to lead a lonely and unhappy life. Frankenstein’s story is what happens when we aim for godlike heights without thinking about the consequences.

I’ve ‘read’ this book for the second time as an audiobook and I can recommend everyone who struggles to read classics like this one to do the same. Sometimes the prose is a bit long-winded and the writing style is not easy either for those not familiar with it, which is most of us because few speak 18th century English on a day-to-day basis. Also, it takes quite a while before the real story begins because it starts with a letter exchange between a sister and her captain brother who met Victor during a North Pole excursion while he was hunting the creature. This is a confusing way to start the story because the North Pole expedition has little to do with the main story. This makes it hard to get into the book. An audiobook helps because you can listen to it while cleaning or walking or so, and be patient while the story gets good. It is still worth the effort to read it as well, because it is a classic which deserves to be one, and is perfect for people who like Jane Austen, but like a bit more horror elements to their story as well.

Next time someone calls Frankenstein’s creature a monster, you can have a lively discussion about that based on this review. It is true he did horrible things, but also some of his actions can be explained by his past. However, does that make the actions acceptable? You could even argue that Victor is the monster in this context because he decided to create a creature he had not the capacity to take care of. To me, one of the strong points in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that it is never clear who exactly is the monster. Is it Victor or the creature he created? Frankenstein is one of those classics that remains relevant because the questions addressed stay relevant. Be it the question of responsibility for our own actions or how far we should go with science.

Icarus award for showing us that not all science we can do, is science we should do.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein (London, 1818)

 

Bella bookworms 2
Bella G. Bear

 

London Book Haul

This New Year’s, I, Jo, was in London for the first time in my life. I joined Thura and her husband, who went there with a choir to sing and play organ in three evensongs in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral. I’m insanely proud of them and so happy to have been with them and heard them! Still, the evensongs were only on three days of the nine or so we spent in the city. That left plenty of time to peruse the many bookshops of London and oh my, England does bookshops so well. There were nooks and stairs and the highest bookcases, with whole divisions dedicated to History or Biographies or Christmas Murder Mysteries or Young Adult for all ages. In addition, books are wonderfully cheap in England. It’s just as well that Thura had instructed her husband to bring an extra suitcase on his train. Our backpacks would never have held our glorious London book haul.

I, Thura, had the glorious pleasure of showing Jo around London over new years, so I dragged her around, showing her all the places that meant something to me, beautiful places, nostalgic places and, of course, bookshops. When I used to visit England with my parents, we’d often bring a spare suitcase or empty bag for all the books we’d buy in England, because they’re so dangerously cheap over there. We did the same. I’m a Dutch girl, who is forever homesick for England, and after spending so much time in England as a child especially, I feel at times more British than Dutch. Writing this post may cure some of the ache I feel these last couple of weeks, for missing London already.

In this post, we’ll mostly go into the bookshops we’ve visited and the books we’ve bought there. If you’re looking for good reasons to visit London, there are many, but the bookshops should be one of them.

Thura’s Books

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Lockwood: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
One of my favourite trilogies of all time is the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. His style of writing is hilarious, his plots ingenious and he has really thought every element of the story through properly. So, when I came across a new series (well, new to me) by him at the Waterstones on Trafalgar Square, I wasn’t going to just walk by it, now was I?! I actually can’t wait to start this one.

The Poetry of Punk: the Meaning Behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics by Gerfried Ambrosch, All Ages Records Camden
One of the things I really wanted to do while we were in London, was to show Jo and Vincent a few places that are very special to me. One of those places is ‘All Ages Records’, and independent Punk record shop where I learned to love punk as just a little kid. Punk has been such a big part of my life for so long now and I often have difficulty explaining this to the people I love. But while we were there, Vincent bought me this book, as a way of showing me that it matters to him because it matters to his wife (me). This really was a lovely gift!

What to draw and how to draw it by E.G. Lutz, St. Martin-in-the Fields giftshop
I’m always doodling and this book simply caught my eye, because it gave me more ideas on things to draw, as is the title! Apparently, this book from 1913 inspired Walt Disney even, so it must be a good buy. It contains loads of cartoons and how to draw them in five simple steps. There’s how to draw faces, animals and even small landscapes, and it’s just one of those gorgeous old-fashioned books.

The big book of Christmas mysteries edited by Otto Penzler, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
In our last Christmas post, we compiled a list of books with the themes of death and Christmas, and you can find it here. Now, you probably don’t know that the three of us had a bit of discussion beforehand on if this really is such a common combination or not: I was convinced it was. As it turns out, this is where my British side had taken over, because the English bookstores are absolutely packed with books on murder at Christmas or something of the like. This volume contains over twenty stories by different authors, all murder. This ought to keep me happy for at least another ten Christmases to come!

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Gay’s the Word bookshop
The bookshop closest to out hotel was ‘Gay’s the word’ and it couldn’t have turned out more perfect. I’ve often mourned the fact that there are very little bisexual characters in books, which hurt me a lot when I was a little bisexual girl myself, still unsure whether that was okay or not. But ‘Gay’s the word’ had all I needed and I found this lovely novel there. Little & Lion not only deals with a young girl’s sexual identity, but also with mental illness: two subject that deserve a lot more attention in my opinion.

Faith in the public square by Rowan Williams, Waterstones Bloomsbury
Apart from being an awkward little punk bisexual girl, I am also a theologian. Jo gifted me this book in London and it’s actually perfect. Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of the Anglican Church and he is theologian I admire very much. In this book he specifically focuses on what theology means or should mean to our culture today and how it can help: a field that interests me greatly. So, thanks Jo!

George’s Marvellous Experiments by Roald Dahl, Natural History Museum giftshop
Yet another random book I picked up! We were visiting the ‘Natural History Museum’ in London and when I came across this beauty in the gift shop I couldn’t resist. Roald Dahl is always a treat, but in this book George is actually trying to do some crazy experiments on his ever grumpy and grizzly grandma. And now you can do them yourselves, which recipes and all. Be very afraid.

Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney C. Stevens, Gay’s the Word bookshop
Another book I have high hopes for and one that I found at ‘Gay’s the Word’. The back of the book says that it’s a story about the tomboy daughter of a small town’s preacher, who has difficulty fitting the mould of what people believe she should be and now she might be in love with another girl as well. In short, this is exactly me as a teenager. This seems a very refreshing book and I’m curious to see if there’s more of me I will recognise in it.

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco, Foyles
A book about a young woman, who becomes obsessed with Jack the Ripper and has a secret life she leads, which includes learning all she can about corpses. To be fair, this sounds like a horrible and cheap romance-horror novel, but it sounds like fun to me. And not all books we read have to be high literature! This sounds perfect for livening up those boring Sunday afternoons.

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, Foyles
Here’s a confession: I do judge a book by its cover and it’s the reason I bought this book specifically at Foyles. It just intrigued me and it’s the only book from this list I’ve read since returning from London. My review of this book you can find here, but just to give you an idea: it’s about a young orphan who lives with his uncle, who is actually a warlock. It’s a children’s book but actually quite scary at times, so it certainly did not disappoint.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, Hatchards bookshop
Agatha Christie: the queen of murder an mayhem. Oh, how I love her! Of course I already have a few shelves of her books, but one can never have enough. This book spoke to me on a personal level, because on the cover is a lovely skull with some kind of cocktail. Even better, the murder takes place in some dodgy London nightclub. How can anyone say no to that?

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, Waterstones Bloomsbury
After singing an evensong with my choir at St Paul’s, the actual reason for coming to London in the first place, I was very hyped up, but exhausted. However, we really wanted to visit a Waterstones we’d seen in Bloomsbury and this bookshop was simply magic. Floors and floors of old books, fiction and non-fiction: you could spend weeks in there. But I was also exhausted, so after walking around in awe for a little while, I sat myself down in a window seat (!!!) and read a few pages of this book. I had no intention of buying it, but it was unbelievably scary and I just need to know what happens next!

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill, Gay’s the Word bookshop
This gorgeous gem of a book is yet another find at ‘Gay’s the word’, and I love it already. It’s a graphic novel about a princess who saves another princess from a tower, an overweight pet dragon and their quest to rid their world of an evil sorceress. I absolutely love the fact that this is a classic fairy-tale, but with two princesses and I couldn’t be happier with the happy ending in the form of a royal wedding.

The Glass of Lead & Gold by Cornelia Funke, Foyles
I bought this book because it was tiny and beautiful. Again, judging a book by its cover. Also, I was in Foyles, on of the most magical and wonderful places of London and this book is about London. Well, I say London, but it’s about Londra, which is a sort of parallel-universe London. The main character is Tabetha, who collects scraps from the river Themse to sell. All in all, the book simply spoke to me.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, Hatchards bookshop
My library contains many, many books by Dickens, but this one was still missing. London is a filthy place, with lots of homelessness, but it can also be magical at the same time, so it really is the stuff of Dickens. Where better to buy my missing Dickens than here? The mystery of Edwin Drood is one of those rare novels that was never finished, but still managed to turn into a classic somehow. I’ve always enjoyed this novel and I’m proud for it to be part of my personal library now.

Jo’s Books

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
This is a wonderful adventure book that I only ever read in Dutch and would like to read in its original language. I bought this copy because it is so beautiful, honestly. I gave it to my youngest brother as a present for looking after my pet rats while I was away (so it’s not in the picture).

Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates by Kerry Greenwood, Waterstones Bloomsbury
I didn’t know there was a book series before there was the television series, although in most cases there is. Imagine my delight when I hit upon this book in the crime section of the enormous Waterstones in Bloomsbury. I love British murder mysteries, so I’m very curious to see if Australian ones compare well. Miss Phryne Fisher herself is a streetwise flapper, so I’m already inclined to love the story.

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
I owned book 1 through 5 in the Harry Potter series, but not the last ones. In the past years I have collected them one by one and now I finally have the whole series! Also, the last book is a birthday present from Bella, who couldn’t give it to me herself because she’s still in Kenya (she gave me a Muggle Tour of London as well, on which we met Hagrid!).

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie, Hatchards bookshop
Hatchards has two bookcases devoted entirely to Agatha Christie. I looked particularly for a book starring Tommy and Tuppence, a married couple who were spies in the War and now occasionally fight crime together. I loved these characters in By the Pricking of My Thumbs, my review you can find here, because they are clever, witty and very kind to each other. A collection of short stories about this witty couple sounds perfect for Sunday afternoons.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
Every time I read a biography I wonder why I don’t read biographies more often, because I enjoy them so much as a genre. I have resolved to buy and read more of them and who could be more worthy a subject of my first step in the right direction than the wonderful Agatha Christie?

Just Kids by Patti Smith, Gay’s the Word bookshop
And autobiography this time, by the punk poet Patti Smith. I know her music is phenomenal and that she looks absolutely fantastically (the ties, the waterfall of grey hair…), but I don’t know anything about her life. Soon, I will.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
A horror story by Charles Dickens must be worth reading and the cover is so pretty. This is a short story with bonus short story (The Boy at Mugby) put in. Apparently, it’s about a railway worker who receives warnings from ghosts whenever a terrible accident is about to happen. I had never heard of it, philistine that I am, but I look forward to reading it.

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett, St Martin-in-the-Fields giftshop
I watched the excellent film adaption of this story with Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, a few years ago and wanted to read Alan Bennett’s book ever since. It is about an old homeless woman who camps her van in Bennett’s driveway and stays there for fifteen years, and it is mostly based on real events. I came upon this book in the gift shop of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church in the middle of London well-known for its programmes to help and welcome homeless people.

Warning: When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple by Jenny Joseph, St Martin-in-the-Fields giftshop
Another find in the church gift shop: an illustrated booklet of a poem that I knew and adored. It’s a bit of an anthem to Bella, Thura and me. We have great plans for the future. The illustrations are by Pythia Ashton-Jewell.

Minority Monsters! by Tab Kimpton, Gay’s the Word bookshop
I try to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m always getting lost in terminology. This is a helpful, colourful and funny guide to sexuality, gender and the semantics of different terms that are floating around. These are all explained with the help of mythical creatures like Sir Fabulous the Bisexual Unicorn and Madame Lucie Decline the Asexual Succubus. It’s a very approachable, clear and sweet little comic book, actually.

The Trouble with Women by Jacky Fleming, Gay’s the Word bookshop
Why are there almost no brilliant women? The history books are full of male heroes, geniuses and tyrants but women are apparently not worth mentioning. This comic book helpfully and satirically explains why women aren’t important historical figures, ever.

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby, Foyles
I made a New Year’s resolution to make better food for myself and what I meant was that I really have to learn how to cook better. In a fit of optimism and ambition I bought this cookbook, that is full of recipes of Shakespearean meals. Only afterwards did I realise that I don’t even recognise most of the meals’ names. No matter, because it has a lot of interesting information about Shakespeare and culinary history as well.

In conclusion, our favourite bookshops were ‘Gay’s the Word’, for their vast array of LGBTQ+ books and a general atmosphere of welcoming and cosiness and the ‘Waterstones’ in Bloomsbury, for its sheer amount of books, both fiction as well as non-fiction. These really might be what heaven looks like. Another fun thing to mention might be the Dickens Museum that we stayed quite close to as well. They sell lots of books by Dickens  and it gives you a great insight into the life of this wonderful author. All in all, this post could go on for ages, but I think you get the message: London is a lovely, lovely, bookish place, because of all the bookshops, but also because of its Dickensian filth. I can’t wait to go back.

The House with a Clock in its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt #1) by John Bellairs

It’s a fine line to walk when writing a scary book for children: too often it’s not scary enough or sometimes the book turns out too scary for adults even. I loved horror, mystery and ‘goosebumps’ kind of books when I was little, so when I found out this book came out in 1973, I was a little bit sad that I didn’t get to read it when I was little, because I would have loved it. On the one hand, ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ is very much a children’s’ book, because it is written from the point of view of a child with its average child-problems. On the other hand, I’m an adult now and this story still managed to give me proper shivers at times: Hooray!

Lewis Barnavelt is a ten-year-old boy, who has just become an orphan. Forced to travel with all he could manage to take with him, he is to live with his strange uncle Jonathan. Lewis has heard all kinds of weird and scary stories about this uncle, but Uncle Jonathan turns out to be quite lovable and very welcoming. He is a little bit strange, yes, but so is his neighbour Mrs Zimmermann, who spends a lot of time at their mansion. Nevertheless, Lewis feels right at home in the town of New Zebedee and in the old-fashioned mansion with more rooms than he can count. However, at night he senses there’s something strange going on in the house and he could swear there’s someone walking the creaking corridors. Conquering his fears, he discovers it’s his uncle Jonathan, who roams the halls and taps on all the walls at night. Maybe he is crazy after all…

Eventually uncle Jonathan decides to tell Lewis the truth: he and Mrs Zimmermann are in fact a warlock and witch, and the mansion used to belong to a very powerful warlock, who appears to have hidden a clock in one of the walls. Knowing this, Lewis starts to discover all kinds of strange things about the house, like windows where the view changes and portraits that move, but Lewis quite likes this. School isn’t as enjoyable as home is though, because wherever Lewis goes, he is always the fat kid who isn’t any good at baseball. That is, until one of the most popular boys, Tarby, befriends him and decides to teach him how to play baseball properly. But when the friendship seems to die down a little, Lewis wants to do everything in his power to keep his only friend in New Zebedee, including impressing him with some magic.

This starts off innocently enough, with uncle Jonathan doing some magic tricks for both of the boys, but Tarby still loses interest in Lewis after a while. So Lewis decides to try and do some magic on his own: he is going to raise a corpse from the dead on Halloween. Unfortunately, he is successful and he seems to have raised the corpse of the lady of the house he lives in right now. She was once the wife of the powerful warlock that lived in the house before uncle Jonathan did. Things start to change around the little town on New Zebedee and there’s talk of the Day of Judgement drawing near. Finding the clock in their walls in now more important than ever.

I started off my review by saying that it can be very difficult for authors to write a book that is both suitable for children, but scary at the same time. I think Bellairs managed both, but that’s coming from me: an adult who loved feeling frightened as a child. About halfway through this book you’ll start to get this uneasy feeling, and so you should, and it never really goes away. The plot isn’t particularly frightening, though the possible end of the world is never fun, but it’s the style of writing that makes you look over your shoulder every few minutes. The best example of this is the clock in the story, always ticking, but you don’t really know why it’s there or why it’s important, until the very end. However, for the first half of the book, I didn’t particularly enjoy the style of writing and I thought it often dull and a bit slow to get into. But when the story gets better, so does the pace and then the book really grabs you. Also, it can be very funny at times and this has a lot to do with the characters.

Uncle Jonathan and Mrs Zimmermann are probably two of the favourite characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading about. They’re neighbours, but also best friends. They spend time with each other almost constantly, but there is no mention of them being in a romantic relationship. Them being together wouldn’t even really make sense, because they’re much better and stronger together as friends. And the best thing about their relationship is the fact that they communicate most of the time through insulting each other. They’re both middle-aged, but behave as children in that sense and it’s hilarious. Mrs Zimmermann is described as having an unbelievable amount of wrinkles and she always wears purple dresses. Mrs Zimmermann is the reason I really started to like this book, because she is a much better witch than uncle Jonathan is a warlock. She has a higher degree in magic than him, she’s more practical at times and she doesn’t need a man to take care of her. Of course we have many characters like her now, but remember: this book was written in 1973! I think we owe much to characters like Mrs Zimmermann.

Last but certainly not least, there are a few life lessons to be learned from ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’. When Lewis loses his parents, people warn him about his uncle Jonathan in advance, saying he’s strange and he might be crazy. This scares Lewis at first, but when he gets there, he finds a new home. Being different is not something to be feared, but it can often lead to wonderful and unexpected outcomes. Secondly, the trouble starts when Lewis tries to impress his friend Tarby over and over by doing magic, just to keep him as a friend. If you have to do dangerous things just to earn someone’s friendship, it probably isn’t a great friend. And lastly, do not meddle in magic if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t even try to conjure up spirits of the dead. Just, don’t.

As you may have guessed, the ghost of my ten-year-old me wrote part of this review. This really is just a fun spooky book for children, but I would recommend it to children with quite a spine only. Actually, the same goes for adults, because this book is a little bit creepier than what i’d expected. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed it. And what’s the point in being an adult if you can’t enjoy books that you would have loved as a child? So if you’re anything like me, a clown-fearing child who watches horror nonetheless, you’ll love this book.

Monster Blood Award: because R.L. Stine probably loved this one

John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt #1) (New York, 1973)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

For Two Thousand Years (De două mii de ani) by Mihail Sebastian

Under the 1923 Constitution of Romania, every citizen of the country held rights and freedoms. This meant minorities were recognized for the first time. Minorities included ethnic Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and Bulgarians, but also Jews. For many Romanians, granting rights to Jews was a step too far. Simmering anti-Semitism came to a boil and erupted in violence and relentless hate, as happened in the rest of Europe as well. In the middle of this crisis, a young man tried to grow up in as inconspicuous a manner as possible. Eleven years later he wrote a novel, not an autobiography, but with many autobiographical elements. His name was Mihail Sebastian. His protagonist and alter ego remains an anonymous narrator.

For Two Thousand Years takes the form of a diary. The main character is a young Jewish man who studies at the university of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Through the growing unrest, his life there is made difficult by both his fellow students and his teachers, which prompts him to think about what him being Jewish means. The students literally kick out their Jewish peers from lectures, while the professors do nothing and shrug when complained to. The protagonist discovers a lecture series in political economy that is unlike anything he has heard before. He tries to make it through as many of the lectures as possible, just to hear the lecturer, Ghiţă Blidaru, speak. A year later, Blidaru has taken the protagonist under his wing and encourages him to change his law studies to architecture: something practical, to connect him to the land. The narrator follows Blidaru’s advice.

Five years later, the main character has finished his studies and has become one of the architects working on a building an oil refinery in a rural part of Romania under the supervision of Mircea Vieru, a modernist architect who has recently lost his good reputation after criticising his colleagues one too many times until the media turned on him. The protagonist admires him greatly, although he is very different from Ghiţă Blidaru, who is less practical and more metaphysical than Vieru. When his work on the refinery project is done, the protagonist moves to Paris for a while to work on another project for Vieru. He meets new people, Romanian and French, Jewish and non-Jewish. He meets old friends as well, because many Romanians travel to Paris for study, work or simply intellectual stimulus. The narrator describes these people in his diary in painstaking detail, noting their opinions and character and politics. Meanwhile, barely dormant anti-Semitism becomes outspoken and violent in all of Europe while the economy goes down and people discover that with the formation of nation states, Jews have become citizens in their own right. 1923 is long ago now. It’s the 1930’s and the protagonist gets the opportunity to design and build his own project: a house for Ghiţă Blidaru, the man he so admired as a youngster. He is grown up now, a long way from the anxious student he was, and just a little calmer at the thought that he will never truly know who he is.

The protagonist writes his diary in a contemplating, descriptive tone. He is intelligent, an unpretentious intellectual who weighs his words and is frequently embarrassed by his own entry from a previous day. He is skeptical of political movements such as Zionism or communism, that state that complex problems will be solved by changing one thing only. Different viewpoints are represented by his fellow Jews: a proud bookseller with a love for Jiddish, his political fellow students, Zionists and revolutionaries, men who want to assimilate and those who would rather die. More disturbingly, the non-Jews around him take different anti-Semitic stances. It’s not just a few fascist types in an otherwise tolerant and modern world. It’s a general view that presents itself in many forms but is there in everyone the protagonist encounters. Ghiţă Blidaru is an anti-Semite, however friendly he is to the protagonist. The young man is used to it because he knows that almost everyone, be it a casual conversation partner or a good friend, hates Jews in some way. Some of them have theories of blood and soil which point to the fascist anti-Semitism of the Second World War, others ‘merely’ think that Jews are too different from other Romanians to fit in. There is only one person the protagonist thought was too practical, too objective, too progressive and too devoted to his work to be an anti-Semite: his master, Mircea Vieru. He is disillusioned to his core when the man starts speaking of a ‘corrosive Jewish spirit’ that is dangerous to Romania, and how he would like to eliminate a good part of the Jewish population to diminish the threat.

What his conversation with Vieru makes clear, is that anti-Semitism is not based on arguments. The protagonists says himself that he gets along better with people who don’t feel the need to substantiate their anti-Semitism, ‘because everything between us is clear-cut’. There is no need for discussion. But people like Vieru and Blidaru, who give reasons for their anti-Semitism, are fooling themselves. Anti-Semitism is so deeply a part of collective consciousness that people will find new arguments for it in every time, in every country. It is what happened for two thousand years (and kept on happening after this book was published, in the Second World War and even today). People just find new ways of rationalising their hate, like Vieru, who claims that he doesn’t have a problem with Jews in general, just with the effect too many Jews have on the Romanian society. The narrator has grown tired of having to defend himself against new, arbitrary reasons for hating him and his people.

The character of Ghiţă Blidaru is based upon the philosopher Nae Ionescu, the real-life hero of Mihail Sebastian (whose original name was Iosif Mendel Hechter). Before the book was first published, in 1934, Sebastian asked Ionescu to write a foreword. Ionescu, who had already started to form anti-Semitic opinions, accepted and wrote a scathing text about how Jews could never be Romanians and how a Jew was only a Jew, not a human being. Astonishingly, Sebastian decided to publish the foreword anyway, to the dismay of many leftwing Jews. I don’t understand why he did it, unless he thought it was the ultimate conclusion to what he did in his novel: giving a voice to every possible opinion. It’s clear that he was conflicted about what it meant to be a Jew in Romania at that time. He both loved and hated being Jewish, but at the end of the novel he writes, in the voice of his protagonist: “I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you’re not. It’s not a matter of either pride or shame.”

Sebastian has written a brilliant account of his time, through the eyes of a solitary, observant man. Sadly, I don’t know any Romanian, because the prose in For Two Thousand Years is so beautiful and intelligent that I long to read it in its original language. It was translated to English only in 2016, though a French translation had already existed for a long time. The book has been translated to Dutch, my mother tongue, this past year, so I will read it in Dutch as well. Its contemplative but realistic and confronting style is not something that comes across well in a short synopsis, so it’s hard to express how much I want everyone to read this, how important I think it is. I hope it will become a worldwide classic. Maybe you will understand what I mean when you read the following paragraph, taken from the next-to-last chapter:

“I believe the only way in which I can clarify any of this ancient pain is for me to try, alone, for my own sake, to comprehend the knot of adversity and conflict with which I am bound up in Romanian life. And I don’t believe this solitariness is an escape, a lack of solidarity with my people. On the contrary, as it’s not possible for the experience of one person who sincerely accepts and lives a drama not to be of some use in lighting the way for all the others. It seems more urgent and effective to me to achieve a harmony in my own life between the Romanian and Jewish parts of my character than to obtain or lose certain civil rights. I would like to know, for instance, what anti-Semitic law could erase from my being the irrevocable fact of having been born by the Danube and loving that place.”

Pen is Mightier Than the Sword Award for finding words under conditions that are designed to silence people

Mihail Sebastian, De două mii de ani (Bucharest, 1934)

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Jo Robin

Inkheart (Inkworld #1) by Cornelia Funke

A long time ago, I wrote a post on tumblr saying: ‘When someone asks me why I started reading so much, my answer is always: I was a lonely kid. I guess that’s why I love all bookworms, of every nationality, personality and size. I guess we’re all just the same. I guess we’re all still just lonely kids at heart.’ This post got about a thousand notes in a very short period of time and I was incredibly surprised how me thinking out loud resonated with so many people. I did grow up quite lonely, but I grew up in a house full of books as the daughter of a librarian and an academic. Books surrounded and comforted me and I have never lost my love, not only for stories, but also for the physical objects that are books. Inkheart is one of the books that really spoke to me, because I felt like Cornelia Funke was one of the first authors who actually understood me and therefore most avid readers. The clue is in the name: our hearts are made of ink.

Meggie is twelve years old and her life revolves around books. That’s mainly because her father, whom she calls Mo, is a bookbinder and they often move due to his restoration jobs. But whichever house they live in, it is filled with books and Meggie finds solace from her lonely life in her books. However, Mo refuses to read to her. He offers her all the books in the world, even binding her own stories into pretty covers, but he will not read a word to her. Meggie simply accepts this as part of her father, that is, until a stranger appears in the night, who introduces himself as Dustfinger. For the first time in her life, Mo sends Meggie away strictly, but Meggie is determined to find out what the two adults are talking about. When she eavesdrops, she hears them talking about places she has never heard of, books, and an evil man called Capricorn. And as exciting as it would be in a book, in real life it scares Meggie.

The next morning, they pack up again, but this time without any explanation from Mo. They drive hundreds of miles and end up at Meggie’s aunt Elinor, whom she has never met before. Aunt Elinor is another recluse, who has made her home into one massive library. Dustfinger, and his strange marten with horns called Gwin, travels with them and he tells Meggie he’s actually a fire-eater. But the eclectic party isn’t safe at aunt Elinor’s, because soon strange men, with even stranger names, kidnap Mo. Elinor, Dustfinger and Meggie go after them, with a book called ‘Inkheart’, because that’s what Capicorn is really after. Meggie is reunited with her father in a jail cell in a village Capricorn has take over. Here Mo decides to tell his daughter the truth: he has a gift where he can bring things out of books to reality, just by reading a book out loud. He tells her Dustfinger, Capricorn and most of Capricorn’s henchmen come from the book ‘Inkheart’. Soon he can prove it to her, when Capricorn makes him read all the treasure out of ‘Treasure Island’.

Eventually, Dustfinger manages to free the three of them and they escape to yet another village where Fenoglio lives. Fenoglio is apparently the author of ‘Inkheart’ and Mo was actually hoping he would have another copy of the book, which he doesn’t. Little by little, Meggie learns more and more of the world Fenoglio has created in his book, of her father’s gifts and of what has actually happened to her mother. Eventually, she also finds that she is a lot more like her father than she previously thought, which she will need when it becomes clear that Capricorn will not simply let them walk away.

The best way to describe this book, the entire trilogy really, is through one word only: magic. There’s magic in the elements of books, because this entire series is practically an ode to reading, to all bookworms! Meggie is an avid reader and Mo is a bookbinder, and they’re so alike, they match each other so well, that they communicate through the language of books themselves. Before characters from books actually start coming to life, their stories are real in their minds as well. And it’s not just the stories, it’s also the books as objects that are made magical by Funke. The binding, restoring and actually caring for books plays a big part in this story and I loved that. But, of course, there is also  the magic of books coming to life for real: characters slipping from the pages, worlds that can be entered with a word and places where being magical is the norm. I wanted to believe in these things more than anything when I was little, although I knew it wasn’t real. But somehow Cornelia Funke has written a book that has made this believable for me once again. With her fine prose and lovely words, her lonely characters that love reading as much as I do, I believed every word she said and am convinced that books carry actual magic in them.

So we find magic in our books, but what to do when magic actually shows up on your doorstep? Often adventure isn’t all that great when it happens to you. I know I’ve just written how much I loved the magical aspect of the book, but I very much enjoyed the clash with reality as well. Meggie has read about heroines all her life, they have guided and aided her, but how to become one? When things go south for the first time, she’s very confused, she is only a child of course, and has no idea what to do. The same goes for the villains that have stepped off the pages of Inkheart: they’re horrible and not nearly as much fun as they were when they were fictional. We like to read about bad things happening or about tragedy or even killers, but in the end we all want good to triumph over evil, because loved ones dying, people on the run and ruthless bandits isn’t something we want in real life. And once Meggie understands this, she finds her strength again. But I loved how she or her father aren’t automatically heroes: they need time to adjust and to figure out what’s right, and they have to overcome a lot in order to be able to fight. And I think most of us are like that: we bookworms like to pretend we’re sword-wielding pirates, but if we were to end up on an actual pirate ship, we’d probably all choose to swim home. What I’m getting at is that these characters are very believable to me in the way they are and act when actually confronted with danger. They are real-life fictional bookworms.

This book takes me right back to my childhood. Not because I read this book when I was little, but because it has that vibe that I craved as a kid. My childhood wasn’t particularly easy and I found solace I my books. Not just in reading them, but pretending all the time that my books were in fact reality. One of the great things about this book is that every chapter starts off with a quote from some other author, often praising books in general. Because Inkheart really is a book about books, in every way. I’ll give you a few examples of those quotes used:

‘My library was dukedom large enough’ –William Shakespeare, The Tempest

‘ ‘What do children do without storybooks?’ Naftali asked.
And Reb Zebulun replied: ‘They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.’
‘I couldn’t live without them.’ Naftali said.’ – Isaac Bashevis Singer, Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus

And my personal favourite:

‘What child unable to sleep on a warm summer night hasn’t thought he saw Peter Pan’s sailing ship in the sky? I will teach you to see that ship.’ –Roberto Cotroneo, When a Child on a Summer Morning

These quotes capture the vibe of the book perfectly, because they both let you see all the books that are available and give you that feeling of being safe because you have your books. It may be hard to explain to anyone who isn’t a bookworm or a bibliophile, but just the presence of books can be comforting. It brings you travels, solace and company. And you will be able to see that pirate ship in the sky.

The only possible negative thing I have to say about this book is that it’s really a book for children, but I loved that aspect as well. In my opinion, if you can’t read a children’s book or Young Adult fiction anymore when you’re older, or even worse because you think you shouldn’t anymore, something has gone horribly wrong in your development. I loved the gripping story by Funke, I loved her writing style and I love how she makes all bookworms feel loved. A book really can’t get much better than that.

Piglet award: for not being sure on how to become a hero exactly…

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (Inkworld #1) (Hamburg, 2005)

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Thura Nightingale