C.S.Lewis was apparently seldom happier than when he was making notes as he read, actively engaging with the text by underlining passages, sketching genealogical trees, adding headlines to each page. In a letter he wrote in 1932 he explained his thinking:
Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
I seldom follow his lead when I’m reading purely for pleasure. If I come across a scene I think is remarkable or a passage with an interesting perspective or idea I’m far more likely to tear off a Post-It note than to get out a pen.
It’s an approach that is flawed in many ways. Those little squares of day-glo coloured paper do have the annoying habit of coming adrift from the page to which they were once attached. Not very helpful therefore as aide mémoires or ways of quickly finding significant pages. The bigger flaw however is that generally (the photo above is a rare exception) I omit to add any note to the sticker which captures my thoughts about the passage I’ve marked so weeks after I finish the book and look back at the Post- It notes, I often can’t remember what had caught my attention.
My other habit, when Post-It notes are not available, has a similar flaw. I know some people hate the idea of turning down a corner just as they hate to see cracks along the spine. But this doesn’t worry me at all. I wouldn’t of course want to read books which have coffee stains or food marks on the pages but books with turned down corners and creased covers signal to me that this was a book that I read and enjoyed, maybe the marks show that I carried it with me on a holiday or to read in the park. In short, it’s a book with which I had a relationship.
I know the theory that reading should be an active exercise; that you should annotate it at the same time as reading. Making notes as you go along makes you think more about the ideas being presented which helps to improve retention of what you’ve read. I do it if I’m reading a novel as part of an educational course. Hence why my copy of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady contains plenty of scribbles (even then I’m clearly not as committed as Lewis since my notes are faint pencil marks not ink). But I’ve never got into the habit of doing this with books I’m reading for pleasure. Somehow it feels as if it would spoil the experience itself to break off, reach for a pen and begin scribbling. Some bloggers do I think and others keep a notebook by their side as they read. Maybe it would help me to remember some books in more detail (but then I have the blogsite for that) but I’m not convinced.
What camp do you all fall into – are you corner turn-downers or note takers?
With The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.
In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches. The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart
The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.
The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.
The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”
Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.
The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire.
The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire — he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.
Earl Grey tea is brewing; the birds are having a jolly time in the pond and I can hear the faint sound of a lawn mower. It’s a glorious Sunday morning here. Perfect timing to catch up on the week just ending (or last week for those of you who consider Sunday the beginning of a new week).
It was a quiet week on the blog for me. Deadly silent in fact. I managed just one post in eight days. In part this was because my niece came to stay while she did a week’s work experience with me to help her make some decisions about career options post university. So one can hardly have a house guest and then bury one’s head every night in a computer can one??
When I did have some spare time, it was entirely focused on reading. I had been over-enthusiastic on the library reservations site a few weeks ago and ended up with four books arriving all around the same time. I’m not the fastest of readers and hate rushing books. Unfortunately some of these titles couldn’t be renewed so The Confessions of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson was returned yesterday without ever having been opened.
I did however read The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. It’s years since I came across a novel I simply could not put down. This was one of those books. It’s a superbly constructed book of three separate story lines and two characters that asks the question many of us ponder at different points in our lives: what if I had done X instead of Y? How would my life have been different? If you enjoy well written stories about relationships, this is probably going to delight you.
I also finished a delightful short story collection by Carys Davies called The Redemption of Galen Pike and, unusually for me, reviewed almost immediately.
Now I’m part way through the third book I found through the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered award winners; The Offering by Grace McCleen. It’s told from the perspective of Madelaine who has been an inmate of a mental health facility for the last 20 years; taken there after a breakdown at the age of 14. Through hypnotherapy, she is forced to return to the days when she lived on a remote island with her evangelistic father, deeply confused about what she believes to be her relationship with God. The novel is clearly building up to a point where McCleen reveals what caused Madelaine’s breakdown. Parts of the book are very moving but I’m not yet sold on the novel as a whole.
What have you all been up to? Have you uncovered any hidden gems recently?
I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.
But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.
I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.
Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.
The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his wheeled suitcase.
Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same painful secret.
Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity. Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.
These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.
You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story. Go and buy the book.
An occasional round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
As predictable as the ‘Must have Christmas gifts’ and the ‘get in shape for the beach’ feature articles, newspapers have started trotting out that annual stalwart: “must read books for your holiday.”
The Sunday Times “Suitcase Essential” feature listed 100 of what they claimed were the best books for the summer. The basis for their selection wasn’t explained but we had a variety of history, biography, memoirs, and science titles plus of course a fiction list. Out of the 50 fiction titles, they singled out five as ‘top choices’
- Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which it described as “an addictive read”
- The Green Road by Anne Enright summarised as “a heart-wrenching novel about family secrets. The newspaper is tipping it for the Booker Prize this year.
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, described as “an exquisite nobel that feels wrenched from the author’s heart”
- Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster – considered a vivid description of small-town life. This is the only one I’ve read. I thought it was a superb study of how a recently widowed woman slowly claws her way back into some form of a life.
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – a “superb tale” according to the Sunday Times
- The Cartel by Don Winslow which is described as a superb thriller on a par with TV’s The Wire
Surprisingly given the amount of attention garnered by The Girl on the Train, this didn’t get a mention in the crime & thrillers category. It did however make the summer selection published recently by the Financial Times.
It’s interesting to see how different the two lists are in their selections. The FT selects two of the big stories from this year so far – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, The Buried Giant— though both are missing from the Sunday Times list. But the most significant difference is the selection of works in translation or by authors from outside the British/American camp. The Sunday Times manages just two as far as I can tell; The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Dadud, an author who seems to be creating rather a stir with his retake on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. The Financial Times however gives us a special list of fiction in translation. The title that most caught my attention was Wolf, Wolf, by Eben Venter who provides a scathing perspective on the new South Africa. it could however be next summer by the time I get around to reading this…..
If you want to read the Financial Times list in full, click here
And this doesn’t help you fill up your bookshelves, you could always take a look at the list of upcoming new publications put together by The Millions.
A week ago I asked: Can you detect the author’s gender simply by reading their words? Asking you to do this with some Booker prize winners proved to be rather challenging — no-one got all five right though Biblioglobal got close with four correct answers.
The number of responses wouldn’t be enough to provide robust data from which I could draw conclusions so I won’t.
Here are the answers:
Exactly what constitutes a ‘feminine sentence’ I’m not exactly sure.
Extract One: Male Author. This is the opening to The Famished Road by Ben Okri . It won the Booker Prize in 1991. I tried reading it earlier this year but gave up (you can see why here. The extract below is the opening of the book
In the beginning was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.
In that land of beginnings, spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land or origins.
Extract Two: Female Author. This is the opening of The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which won the Booker Prize in 1978. This was the extract that had the highest number of incorrect answers.
The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quite against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald-green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green,icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however not transparent. We are in the north and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. the cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon where it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains word the zenith and vibrates there. But the sea looks cold, even the sun looks cold.
I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring explanation has occurred to me. Perhaps I shall feel calmer and more clear-headed after yet another interval.
Extract Three: Male Author. Another landscape opening; this one is from The Sea by John Banville, winner of the Booker prize in 2005 and one of my favourite Booker titles.
The departed, the gods,on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.
Someone has just walked over my grave.
Extract Four: Male Author. This is a book upon which opinions are very divided because the male protagonist proves to be such a thoroughly distasteful character. The author is the Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee and the book is Disgrace, winner of the Booker prize in 1999. Most people judged this correctly as a male author. Maybe it was the perspective of the author that led to that conclusion>
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smiling and softly lit and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe and slides into bed beside him. “Have you missed me?” she asks. “I miss you all the time,” he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
Soraya is tall and slim with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be here father; but then technically one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.
Extract Five: Female author. The Inheritance of Loss, of which this is the opening, was the second novel written by the Indian author I Kiran Desai. With it, she won the 2006 Booker Prize. Most people judged the gender of this correctly.
All day the colours had been those of dusk,mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his char where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold. but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.
Helen Dunmore is an author whose books I’ve seen around for a long time but never got around to reading until recently when I found a bargain copy of The Greatcoat in a library sale. I wasn’t blown away by it though I have the feeling that this is far from her best work and I would have done better to pick up The Siege or The Betrayal instead.
The Greatcoat features a newly married doctor’s wife trying to get used to her new life in an unfamiliar Yorkshire town and a dark, cold flat where the smell of Brussels sprouts is ever present. It’s 1952 and although the war finished seven years earlier, food and other essentials are still being rationed. Isabelle is lonely, cold and unable to sleep because of her landlady’s relentless pacing in he room above her bedroom. Finding a dusty RAF greatcoat, crammed into the back of a tall cupboard, she spreads it over her bed for warmth.
In the middle of her dreams, she hears a knocking on the window to find a young, handsome Air Force staring in at her from outside the window. Alec becomes an invaluable part of her life. Through him she is transported back to her childhood when she listened to the engines of Lancaster bombers overhead. Their motorbike rides through the Yorkshire countryside give her the sense of freedom she lost with her marriage. But all the time there is a cloud of fear over their relationship as Alec’s next bombing raid draws near.
We’re not far into the story before it’s apparent that Alec is a ghost, one of the many RAF pilots that never made it back to the nearby airfield. He’s not your usual kind of spectre however— he’s not intent on killing her or seeking revenge but he can’t seem to leave Isabelle alone. Actually it’s not even Isabelle he wants, she just reminds him of the girl he loved when he was alive.
Dunmore does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of this novel, manifested in the bleak abandoned airfield and the figure that appears nightly at the window. But overall the implausibility of the story overwhelmed me. Isabelle, for all that she is clearly an intelligent woman, seems oblivious to the fact Alec is not real. She never wonders how he seems to know so much about her, and never questions why he talks about bombing raids over Germany as if the war was still raging but instead completely buys into his accounts of his last raid. The more this nonsense continued, the more I wanted to shout at her “He’s a ghost you stupid woman.”
When Random House published The Greatcoat, they described it as Helen Dunmore’s first ghost story but it’s a pretty gentle one. There’s no evil or malevolence in evidence. Just despair. I would describe it more as a story about the enduring power of love but even then it didn’t thrill me.
The first day of a new month and it’s time to take a quick snapshot of what I’m reading, hearing and watching.
It seems insensitive to say I’m enjoying reading a book set partly in Auschwitz concentration camp. Appreciate would be a more apt and tactful word perhaps to describe my reaction to A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. It’s a curious mixture of alternative history and pulp mystery that imagines a prisoner in the concentration camp using his dreams to block out the pain of his experience. His dream envisages that Hitler’s rise to power was thwarted and Germany became a Communist state. Many of the former regime leaders, like Rudolph Hess, have fled to London. Wolf (the meaning of the name Adolph) has become a private detective, hired by a beautiful Jewish woman to track down her sister. I came across this when the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prizes were announced last month and Tidhar’s book was named as one of the winners. I’m perplexed why this hasn’t had more attention because its a stunning novel.
I’ve returned to some crime fiction for my companion on the work commute. Ruth Rendell can be relied upon to tell a good story and The Vault is up to her usual standard so far. It features her best-known creation, Chief Inspector Wexford, except that in this novel he is chief inspector no longer having retired from the force. He’s finding the transition difficult so is more than happy when a former colleague asks him if he’d be able to help as unpaid advisor on a gruesome multiple murder. The Vault is the penultimate novel in the Inspector Wexford series. Sad to think that with Rendell’s death earlier this year there will be no more Wexfords.
I’ve been playing around with some apps and software programs that enable you to create pictures based on quotes. You know the kind of thing I’m sure – Facebook and Twitter are chock full of them. I thought they might liven up some of my Writers on Reading posts. Inevitably the free programs are rather limiting and I’m not ready to commit to a subscription just yet. My attempts are a bit basic so far.
Has anyone come across a good but relatively easy to use program?