Friday, January 14, 2011

Book reviews

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

I first noticed this book when I was in high school, working as a page at our village library. A novel about a girl in medieval Norway? It was right up my alley but the novel's girth put me off when I had so much schoolwork to do and poor Kristin sat neglected on the library shelf. I don't think anyone ever checked her out and Kristin Lavransdatter became attached to my mental list of books to read some day. I did not realize that Sigrid Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928, mainly because of this novel.

One day a few years ago, a friend of mine told me she was reading Kristin Lavransdatter and that she really liked it. Then I saw a street named after Sigrid Undset, in Rome of all places, and decided that the time had come to get serious about reading this novel, which follows the life of Kristin from early childhood until her death in the 1300s.

What I loved most about Kristin Lavransdatter was the portrait of Kristin as a mother.  Sigrid Undset must have known a thing or two about babies because I can't think of any other book in which they are so charmingly and accurately described.  I half got the feeling that some members of the early attachment parenting community used Kristin as an instruction manual. There's also Kristin's marriage, so beautifully portrayed in all its complexity and a cast of powerful side characters, including Kristin's children as they reach adulthood.

The book is long--over 1,000 pages--but divided into three novels.  I understand if you do not feel ready to take on a 1,000 page work of historical fiction (and one that had to be translated into English at that) but I do urge you to keep this book in the back of your mind until the time is right.  If you don't want your life to be all Kristin, all the time, you can read other novels between each of the Kristin books, which is what I did.

Speaking of translations, I read the old translation by Charles Archer, which uses archaic sounding language and was challenging at times.  According to some reviews I've read, the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally is better and truer to the original work.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen

Three lesser-known works of Jane Austen!  Years ago I tried to read Sanditon, Austen's last novel which was left uncompleted when she died.  Naturally, some busybody tried to finish it for her and the result is disappointing.  I was unaware of the existence of Lady Susan and The Watsons, until I read Virginia Woolf's essay about them in The Common Reader. All three are collected in a single volume, edited by Margaret Drabble.

Lady Susan is a complete short novel, written in epistolary form.  Austen wrote it when she was very young, and it's an immature work without much depth.  What's different about it is that her main character, Lady Susan, is sexually promiscuous, bitchy, and, at age 35, older than most of Austen's protagonists.  

The Watsons, written in the middle period of Austen's life, follows familiar themes:  a daughter of a poor gentleman, sent to live with rich relatives.  She has to return home when the rich aunt who had adopted her marries a man who doesn't want a teenage niece hanging about.  Just as you are getting into the story, it ends, although there's a note about how Austen planned to finish it, based on a letter she wrote to her sister.

Sanditon is my favorite of the three.  It's a highly comic novel, poking fun at people who imagine themselves to be invalids.  It ends abruptly and leaves you positively crying for more.  This time, there is no hint about where Austen planned to go with this novel and it's hard to make a guess since the fragment is only fifty pages long and she'd hardly gotten beyond introducing all the main characters.

At Home by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is probably the only generally popular and well-known author that I read. The disappointing Thunderbolt Kid, several daft posts on his facebook page plus his somewhat lame campaign against littering had me worried that Bill Bryson is losing his grip.  At Home leaves me reassured.  It's a history of domestic life--mainly Victorian English domestic life--with, as is typical of Bryson, delightful side trips down little-known avenues of history.  Bryson will probably be remembered as an expert on eccentricity--not a single one of the people he describes could be described as conventional.  Especially delightful is the list of 18th century clergymen who, due to the very little effort required of men of the cloth, had time to invent and study and become expert on a staggering variety of esoteric subjects. 

An Education--the movie

It's a book as well, actually, which I haven't read yet, but the movie is stunning.  I loved everything about it. It's set in 1960's London.  Jenny is a middle class girl whose parents are grooming her for Oxford.  She meets David, an older man, who introduces her to a new and glamorous life.  Suddenly, Oxford doesn't seem so important. The cast is superb.  I loved Olivia Williams as the brainy English teacher, and Emma Thompson as the snobbish headmistress.  Alfred Molina plays Jenny's father. Any time I see him in a movie, he's a narrow minded, provincial, domestic male (the husband in The Enchanted April, the mayor in Chocolat)--a role that he fills perfectly.  Peter Sarsgaard as David is a convincing mix of charm and creepiness and Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper are fun to watch as his two friends, complicit in the seduction of Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan who also performs admirably.  So-called "middle class values" get a thorough rogering in this movie.  What I liked are the glimpses of British middle class domestic life in the 1960's--the parents washing dishes together, the father's panic about going out to eat in a restaurant ("Should I order a starter?  How will I know which items are starters?")


  1. I loved "An Education" - like you though, I've only watched the movie. The book might be well worth picking up, though.

  2. *sigh* You give the best reviews of the most wonderful titles.

  3. I read Kristin Lavransdatter a few years ago, and have not found anyone else who's read it since.

    I have mixed feelings about the book - I loved the lifestyle descriptions of life in Norway, the historical aspects of it.

    Kristin herself was a character that I found appalling, in the same way I find most devout yet limited people appalling. The whole theology angle was a huge damper on my enjoyment, and the love affair felt gloomy and doomed from the start.

    So, it was well worth a thousand pages to me, since I read bricks all the time, but I would not rate it more than a 3.5/5 for personal satisfaction.

  4. I agree Tatiana, that Kristin could be appalling at times. And so inconsistent. Then again, many real people are inconsistent.