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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (FP: 1847)

Orphaned at a tender age Jane Eyre is left in the tender mercies (actually anything but) of her Aunt, the cold hearted Mrs Reed who can barely stand the sight of her. Tortured and bullied by the Reed children Jane is relieved to be sent to school far enough away that any form of meaningful communication is impossible. There, despite the imposed hardships Jane thrives and eventually becomes a valued member of the teaching staff. Ten years have passed and the need to pursue further interests burn in Jane until she advertises for a Governess position. Her letter is answered and she begins her adventure in the employ of the spinster Mrs Fairfax. As fate would have it she meets her real employer quite by accident when his horse throws him and the diminutive Jane comes to his rescue. Despite his fearsome reputation Jane is quite taken with the less than handsome Mr Rochester as he is taken by her down to earth manners and her fearlessness in the face of his verbal assaults. Before long, despite their difference in social station and age, they become firm friends before tragedy strikes. Running to save her emotional sanity and almost dying in the process Jane starts a new life far away and hopes to live out her days in calm solitude. Fate, or God, has other plans however. Her feelings for Rochester have not diminished and he is often in her thoughts. Then, out of a clear dark night, she hears his voice and feels that she must find him again no matter the cost or the social scandal…

This book has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while now so I thought I’d dust it off and see what all the fuss was about. At 545 pages (in this edition) it was quite a challenge considering that classic love stories are not really my ‘thing’ (despite honestly loving P&P which I couldn't help compare this with). Of course this was ultimately a story of girl finds boy, girl loses boy and girl gets boy back. The barriers to true love where well drawn and rather Gothic to be honest but I suppose believable enough for the time. Both Jane and Mr Rochester are well drawn and I did like Jane quite a lot as a person and couldn’t but admire her fortitude. She was no Lizzie Bennett but then again who is? Two of the things I did like about the novel was its very clear criticism of the position of women in Victorian society – especially the relatively poor and powerless woman – and its rather acid criticism of the rich and indolent upper classes who did not come off at all well (again especially the women who seemed particularly useless and intentionally so!) About the only thing I found particularly irritating, though again understandable considering the publication date, was the surprisingly (at least to me) constant references to God and religion. To be honest I almost skim read these parts. The character of St John Rivers, the intended missionary, was particularly repellent I thought. Constantly referred to as a ‘good man’ he is clearly suffering from some kind of religious mania and I had no problem is labelling him as probably psychotic and probably some kind of sociopath. He totally creeped me out!

I suppose because of its subject matter and its age it took me about twice as long to read this as expected. I always seemed to find something more interesting to do after 4-5 pages so tended to read it in micro-bursts. This is not to say that it was a bad novel – it wasn’t – and clearly deserves its classic status. Maybe it’s that I need to hunt out some classic adventure novels rather than classic romances. That might be the way to go.

 [2015 Reading Challenge: A Classic Romance – COMPLETE (5/50)]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Finished Reading: How To Live – A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (FP: 2010)

I had heard of Michel de Montaigne but the only thing I was confident knowing about him before reading this frankly fascinating volume was that he was French. I knew he was much admired and could have probably dragged up from somewhere the title of his most famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) publication simply called Essays. Apart from that I had no real idea who he was, what he said or even when he lived – I have thought the 18th century but was way off as he lived between 1533 and 1592. His great achievement was to write a series of articles about common subjects but to infuse them a seemingly ageless wisdom that has appealed to countless people right up to the present. The main thrust of his enquiries – no matter the title of the essay in question – was the fundamental problem of how to live a good and useful life. Using his childhood experiences of a rather unconventional education programme devised by his free thinking father, the running of a large estate and internationally known vineyard, years in the Civil Service and as advisor to royalty, delicately navigating the very dangerous waters of religious warfare and civil strife, marriage and fatherhood, the loss of friends, family and retainers, a near death experience after an accident as a young man and studies of his beloved cat he distilled his observations through his knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers to create his own unique brand of wisdom.

Using a similar format to the great man himself, the author examines parts of Montaigne’s life by offering twenty answers to the question of how we should live, with each answer derived from his life and his writing bringing out aspects of both. Some of the answers seem at first to be perverse or obvious. Nothing could be further from the truth. But here they are: Don’t worry about death, Pay attention, Be born, Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow witted, Survive love and loss, Use little tricks, Question everything, Keep a private room behind the shop, Be convivial and live with others, Wake up from the sleep habit, Live temperately, Guard your humanity, Do something no one has done before, See the world, Do a good job but not too good a job, Philosophise only by accident, Reflect on everything but regret nothing, Give up control, Be ordinary and imperfect and Let life be its own answer.

Banned by the Catholic Church for 130 years (a recommendation in itself I felt to buy and read his work) and much loved by people like Virginia Woolf (ditto) the Essays do appear on the face of things to be truly timeless. Hailed in his own life time and, mostly, every century since then (although not always in his home country) the author certainly sold me on the idea that this man should be read and reread so as to absorb his unique take on life, the universe and just about everything. Needless to say, when I do finally pick up a copy of Essays I shall be reviewing it here. I hope that I will be as impressed as I’m expecting to be after reading this highly recommended book.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book by a Female Author – COMPLETE (4/50)]  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gender divide in religious belief, survey suggests

From BBC News

21 January 2015

A big gender divide exists between men and women in their 40s in belief in God and life after death, a poll suggests. Of the British men surveyed, 54% said they were atheists or agnostics compared with only 34% of women. The study also showed that Muslims in the survey had the fewest doubts about the existence of God and the afterlife. The research involving more than 9,000 British people born in 1970 was analysed at the University of Essex.

The figures showed a substantial proportion of those who had said religion was an important part of their lives at the age of 16 became relatively unreligious as adults. The figures, published by the UCL Institute of Education, were analysed by David Voas, professor of population studies at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. Sixty per cent of the women in the study believed in life after death but only 35% of the men. Almost half said they did not identify with any religion while most of the others had a Christian background. Prof Voas said men were twice as likely as women to say that God does not exist. Of those who were religious, 71% of those who described themselves as evangelical Christians had no doubts about God's existence.

However, only 33% of those who said they were Roman Catholics had no doubts. Among Anglicans and Methodists, the equivalent figure was 16%. The study also showed that belief or disbelief in God and the afterlife did not always go together. A quarter of those who called themselves agnostic said they did believe in life after death. However, nearly a third of those people who labelled themselves as "religious believers who have occasional doubts" did not believe in an afterlife. Professor Voas also highlighted the very high level of belief in both God and life after death among Muslims. Some 88% of Muslims in the survey said they knew God really existed and had no doubts.

[Interesting. I’d heard that there was a gender component to faith but hadn’t realised that it was so profound. I wonder why though? What is it about gender that affects belief? If I was a different gender would my pretty fundamental beliefs about the universe be different? That’s a weird thought. I find it hard to credit that female brains are wired differently – or not that differently – so presume that the differences are cultural. But what in the differences in upbringing of boys and girls leads one group to be much more sceptical than the other? Very interesting.]

How the Other Half Live

I’ve been promising for some time now to focus on women authors and we’ve finally arrived at that point. The previous review of Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston was the last of my random bunch of ten books and the first of the woman authored novels will start soon. As I’ve mentioned before I do seem to neglect (or possibly reject) books penned by half of the human population – and indeed my favourite half – much more often than I should. This upcoming parade of female talent will go some way to address this deficiency. But of course, being me, I have to go several steps further than my original intent. So, in addition to reading ten novels by women (two already in the review pile) I will also read any intervening non-fiction during this time also authored by women. This should prove to be more of a challenge than the fictional aspect. I expect to fulfil the history side of things easily but the non-history may take some doing and throw up some wild and strange examples. Then I thought to myself – why not just go the whole hog and just get it over with. So I am. Therefore, for the duration of my novel and non-fiction reading by female authors I will also post extensively, if not exclusively, items focusing on women – starting now. I think it should be fun and I hope you enjoy what I have in mind as much as I do.