Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a novel that strongly captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it as a teenager. I loved the dense, layered, symbol-filled narrative that neatly weaves together the tale of two Victorian poets and their forbidden love with a group of contemporary academics and their search for groundbreaking  evidence of that love.

I read it again a few years later and felt the same swoony admiration for its brilliant use of language and intensely smoldering description of the entanglement between poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I thought it was crazy romantic.

This time around I didn’t feel the same enchantment, but that’s okay – clear-headedness allowed me to appreciate the utter genius of the novel’s construction and to realize what a feat of creativity Byatt achieved with this entertaining tale of passion and scholarly adventure.

Roland Michell is a young academic who’s specialty is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet of high esteem. While researching him in the London Library he discovers an unfinished letter Ash composed to a mysterious woman. His curiosity fuelled, he begins a cautious investigation which leads him to Maud Bailey, an expert on the work of a forgotten female poet, Christabel LaMotte. As the evidence accumulates they realize that Ash and LaMotte may have had a relationship and they are excited, yet wary of revealing this knowledge because they aren’t the only scholars who care. A particular scholar from New Mexico, Professor Cropper, is hot on the chase and willing to pay any price to be the first to own the intimate letters the poets exchanged.

As the connection between Ash and LaMotte is rapidly explored, Roland and Maude slowly form a bond with each other and their own love story takes shape.

There are so many themes and elements fizzing around in Possession that it is hard to pinpoint what this novel is really about. It is most certainly a fantastic story, thrilling and suspenseful, yet there are many, many layers to the story that truly intensify the pleasure of reading it. Byatt’s creation of the numerous letters, poems and journal entries that help to tell the story in addition to the narrative is astounding. The poems range from full length epics to Emily Dickinson-style verses and the letters bring the voices of Ash and LaMotte alive in a way that simply reading about them would not.

The main traits I admire in A.S. Byatt’s writing are her ability as a natural storyteller and her ability to make me feel smart. Her books are full of allusions that I only occasionally understand yet she isn’t snobby about it. Her knowledge is inclusive – I think she wants everyone to delight in it.

My re-read of Possession was very satisfying and I’m sure that in another 10 years or so I will be ready for the 4th reading of it – what will I think of it then?

Pryday #14

It’s Black Friday here in the States, but I have no interest in entering the fray. Shopping frustrates me under normal circumstances so I blissfully stay home while everyone else is out fighting for that amazing deal. I’d rather use the time to read as I am back at work tomorrow, although I might venture out later to use a Barnes and Noble coupon that is facing expiration.

I love the discounts that can be had on books this time of year. I usually end up purchasing several books for myself for Christmas because I can’t pass up the special offers of 20, 30 or 40 % off. And I urge my family to buy me books, as well, though many of them see it as a waste of their money.

What books are you hoping to get as gifts this year, either from others or from yourself?

Here are my choices:

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt was recently awarded the National Book Award for non-fiction. The fascinating tale of the discovery of Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things and how his philosophy influenced the major figures of the Renaissance has received mixed reviews, but I think it sounds riveting.

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie has become a major hit in my library system. I love reading biographies of women rulers (last year at this time I read Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff) and I know next to nothing about Catherine and would like to know more.

A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter is a wonderful tome that I have taken out of the library many times. I’ve finally realized that I need my own copy as I think I will refer to this book throughout my reading life.

How about you? What books are you hoping Santa brings your way?

It’s Time to Read the Classics

I’ve decided to jump on the Classics Challenge bandwagon, this one hosted by Katherine at November’s Autumn. This is a different type of challenge – the guidelines are here – but basically you post on the 4th of every month about the current classic you’re reading or that you’ve recently finished. My goal is to read classics that I’ve downloaded to my Kindle and that have been sitting, taking up precious storage space, since I transferred them. They were all free, but I still feel guilty for not having read them for so long. The following are some of the classics I’ve had on my Kindle for the longest. Has anyone read any of these? Love them? Hate them?

One. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Two. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Three. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Four. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Five. Macaria by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson

Six. Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells

Seven. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Pryday #13

I missed Pryday last week, but am back this week with a question about commenting. Does anyone else ever feel nervous or ambivalent about commenting on blogs? Or am I just a weirdo? I sometimes get a huge complex about my comments not being good enough, smart enough or articulate enough when I want to comment on blog posts and then I end up not commenting and wish I had. There are a few blogs that I have read for years (I won’t name them) that are so intelligently written, funny and sophisticated yet they completely intimidate me and so I  have never, ever commented on even one post.

Does anyone else experience commenting anxiety or worry about how you come across in your comments? Tell me.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book Meme…

Greetings, friends! The malaise of fall seems to have descended here at Gudrun’s Tights and I have been feeling tired and lethargic for the past 3 weeks and, unfortunately, uninterested in reading. It seems funny to have seasonal melancholy here in Arizona where the sun is perpetually bright and it is a pleasant 70 degrees, but somehow I caught it. And on top of all that I am suffering from sinus problems and have fire-face and raw throat syndrome. I have been reading during this time, but verrrrrrrrry slowly. So, in lieu of a book review post I am joining other bloggers in participating in the One Book, Two Book, Three Book meme recently revived  by Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1. The books I’m currently reading: Possession by A.S. Byatt (for my third time), The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper (sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray) and Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.

2. The last book I finished: The Witch of Ravensworth by George Brewer (so long ago!).

3. The next book I want to read: The Time in Between by Maria Duenas, Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

4. The last book I bought: Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt (not sure I’ll like this, but I love Ms. Byatt so will give it a try).

5. The last book I was given: Juliet by Anne Fortier (by the lovely people at Ballantine Books).

What are you reading? Anything devastatingly good?

Pryday #12

The library I work for is entering phase one of a major remodeling project to be completed, hopefully, by February. The library is nearly 12 years old and is in dire need of new carpeting (heavily trafficked areas are currently held together with duct tape), paint and a better configuration of the furniture and computers. I’m really excited about the changes that are coming and will happily sacrifice comfort during the construction phase. I am the kind of person who is affected by the environment I’m in and have been known to avoid certain stores if I don’t like the “feel” of them. For instance, there is a well known bookstore in my area that has great used books and reasonable prices, but I refuse to shop there because it is smelly, dirty and not pleasing to the eye. But I’ve discovered that not everyone cares about the atmosphere of the library or stores they use. My cousin mentioned that she doesn’t care one bit about what her library looks like or how it is arranged – she’s just there to gather her books and go. This observation has made me curious:

Do you care about the atmosphere or feel of your library or bookstore? Are you affected by how it looks or smells?

Hoover, Alabama Public Library

Hallowread: 3 Short Stories

The night before Halloween I finished The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and thought that would be the only spooky reading I’d be able to fit in this year. Halloween night, however, I was in dire need of a hot bath after shifting books all day at the library in preparation to move the shelves for our library renovation, and I took that opportunity to read two short stories from The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. The two stories I chose were Hand in Glove by Elizabeth Bowen and Mr Jones by Edith Wharton.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving was funny, scary and amazingly written. The character of Ichabod Crane is the classic depiction of a “nerd”. I loved Irving’s descriptions of the scenery of upstate, small town New York and the Dutch farmers who inhabit it. The only problem I had with the story was its length – it was much too short for my liking, I wanted more!

Hand in Glove is set in Ireland in 1904. Sisters Ethel and Elsie are orphans who live in a dilapidated house with their crazy aunt, Mrs. Varley de Grey. Their lack of money has spurred them to raid their aunt’s trunks for bits of fabric to fashion dresses out of, but they have no evening gloves. One last trunk remains to be opened and they’re convinced it holds the evening gloves, but something sinster lurks inside. It is not a very scary story, more macabre than creepy, but it has brilliant characterizations.

Mr Jones is the tale of a woman, Jane Lynke, who inherits a country house from a distant relative, moves in and finds that an elusive Mr Jones seems to supervise the servants, but they won’t let her see him. His bizarre pronouncements are handed down by the housekeeper to Jane until she finally breaks and breaches the boundaries he’s set for her and incites tragedy among the household. Ah, Edith Wharton. She could write the copy on the back of a cereal box and make it beautiful and tidy. This story is a concise and perfectly written ghost story.

My Halloween reading wasn’t extensive, but I did enjoy the ghost stories I read. Next year I’m looking forward to reading many more!

Did you read any short stories for Halloween? Do you have a favorite ghost story?