Archive for November 2010

Book Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh I don’t remember how I learned of Evelyn Waugh’s work, but last year I read Scoop, which I found to be a light and funny read. After that, I picked up a few other books by Waugh, and thought I’d finally read Brideshead Revisited, which is his first novel and the one he’s most known for. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy reading it, and I wonder about all the hype I’ve heard about it.

Brideshead Revisited introduces us to Charles Ryder, following along as he looks back on different points in his life in England. Initially, we meet him during his military training during WWII, when he is temporarily stationed at Brideshead, an estate owned by the Flyte family. Charles looks back on how he first came to Brideshead after meeting Sebastian Flyte at Oxford. Among the strange students he meets, Sebastian stands out from the rest and they end up spending a great deal of time together. Charles ends up meeting the rest of the Flyte family, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for how much their religion influences their relationships.

I think what really frustrated me was the way the story was told, not only in how it jumped back and forth in time, but more for how little the reader is shown. Initially, we look back on Charles’ time with Sebastian, but then later, we jump back to roughly the same time period to focus on Julia, Sebastian’s sister. Julia had been there before, in the background, so it seemed odd to separate them so much.

This separation wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t felt like I was already missing something from the start. From the way Charles described Sebastian, it sounded like he meant a great deal to him. But this was told to me, rather than being shown to me, so I really didn’t understand why Sebastian made such an impression on Charles. Maybe it was implied, like other things seemed to be, but I just didn’t understand the attachment to Sebastian, especially when he later developed a severe drinking problem. In a sense, I didn’t feel that I cared about him either way.

Despite Sebastian being so important, I was confused when it was almost entirely dropped from the story later on, with the focus moving almost entirely to Charles’ relationship with Julia. Apparently, Charles was in love with her before, but we aren’t told about this until much later. A lot of things felt tacked on later, or perhaps intentionally hidden the first time around, but it’s not done in an enjoyable way.

The book felt like it changed later on, showing a lot more than earlier, but by then, it felt too predictable. Perhaps this was because of how much was left out earlier on, but I was just glad for it to be wrapping up and returning to the present day. It just seemed like the last third of the book was a lot more interesting, so if the first two-thirds could have been equally interesting, I might have enjoyed reading it more. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t as good as I’d expected, at least from all I’d heard of it and the fact that multiple movie/mini-series have been made of it.

W… W… W… Wednesdays for November 17

W... W... W... Wednesdays

What are you currently reading?
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh I just started reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which I’ve had on my shelf for a bit. So far, it’s not as light as Scoop, which I read last year, but I like it all right so far.

What did you recently finish reading?
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee I just finished reading The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee , which I didn’t really like. (Read my full review.)

What do you think you’ll read next?
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky Earlier in the week, I started reading through Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky, after having set it aside earlier in the year. I tend to only read one book at a time, so I think I might return to this after I finish Brideshead Revisited.

Book Review: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee After reading several novels taking place in WWII Europe, I thought I’d try something a little bit different. And I do mean only a little different, since The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee mainly takes place during (and just after) WWII, though in Hong Kong. I hadn’t read much about what went on in Asia during this time, so I thought it might be interesting, and the story seemed potentially interesting. Unfortunately, it was rather disappointing.

The premise of the book is that you’re presented with two seemingly separate stories, and only after sometime do you see how they’re intertwined. The first story you see is in the early 50s, a bit after the war, with Englishwoman Claire Pendleton arriving in Hong Kong with her husband of only 4 months. While her husband is working with the Water Department to expand the local facilities, she tries to see what Hong Kong is like and later takes a job as a piano teacher.

Through Claire’s interactions, we start to meet a number of characters who connect to the other story, which takes place just before and during the start of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. This earlier story focuses on Will Truesdale, an Englishman working in Hong Kong, and Trudy Liang, a Chinese-Portuguese woman who has been enjoying the life of luxury and society. Will was romantically involved with Trudy and later comes into Claire’s life as well, and the book flips between the two storylines.

This repeated switching wasn’t ok, though I kept finding myself wanting to get back to the other story already, because it didn’t feel like much was going on in the one I was currently in. Some of this comes from the story not feeling all that compelling, but I think a lot of this was more about the fact that none of the characters are likable at all. Trudy is the most grating of them all, and I couldn’t stand her nonchalant and self-centered personality, which Will and others just went along with. And Claire didn’t seem much better, with some of her actions suggesting more to her than the author ever provided you with.

Several times while reading this book, I thought about quitting altogether, especially with all the generalizations about groups of people (the English are like this, the Chinese are like that) and racist attitudes of the characters. But I kept hoping that the story would pick up and something more interesting would happen. Unfortunately, the interesting parts are only alluded to or dumped on you at the end, and with all the awful people and things going on before that, it just wasn’t worth reading to the end.

I would definitely not recommend The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee overall. Perhaps I should have followed my instinct when I thought that the review blurb on the front cover may have been a red flag; it was from Elle magazine, touting the book as “this season’s Atonement.” Yeesh. (As a side note, the author is a former editor for Elle, so take that as you will.)

Book Reviews

I’ve had a bit of time on my hands in the last year, and some of that time has gone to reading a lot of the books I’ve acquired and never had time to actually read. In a “normal” calendar year, I’ll usually read 15-20 books if I can manage it, but last year I read 33, and this year, I’ve read 39 so far. When I finish a book, I usually keep track of it in a notebook and on LibraryThing (here’s my profile), and then usually post a rating, sometimes with a review, on Amazon or other sites that provide recommendations on other books to read. (I also do the latter part for books I don’t like and stop reading.) If I do post a review, it’s usually short, but I’d like to try writing more detailed ones here.

I’ve also poked around some book/reader blogs recently and have seen a lot of people writing about participating in reading “challenges.” The challenges might be about reading about certain topics or in certain genres, reading a certain quantity (usually with a deadline), or reading from a preset list. I can’t think of anything like this, other than the occasional summer reading program, but it’s something I’d like to try out, especially if I can find neat books to read that way.

I tend to read a lot of historical fiction, and I’ve noticed that I sometimes get a little stuck in very specific areas of that. Lots of late 19th century to mid-20th century stories, mainly taking place in the US, England, Germany, or Japan. This summer and fall, for example, I’ve read an awful lot of novels taking place in WWII Germany and England. I do happen to find these time periods and places interesting, but sometimes I think it might be good to venture a bit outside of that, perhaps even in terms of genre. As long as they are well-written and enjoyable to read.

I might also post about anything new I acquire, though most of the books I get these days are used and gotten as cheaply as possible. I use a few book swap sites (BookMooch and PaperBackSwap mainly), and I also live near a small used bookstore, run by a local library “friends” group, that sells books for super-cheap. Plus, there are plenty of library book sales going on around here.

Ok, we’ll see how this goes!

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