Can You Say Goodbye To Your Books?

No-one likes to bid farewell to books. But unless you have a home with ever-expanding wall, there comes a point when your stock of books exceeds the space available.

But how many of you shy away from making that ultimate decision to let go of a book?

A columnist in one of the UK national newspapers once confessed that she felt unable to give any of her books away.  

About to move house she was faced with the prospect of finding space for her collection of roughly 10,000 books in a property half the size of her current abode. Such was her reluctance to part with any of them she even pondered farming her son out to his grandparents because that would give her another 150 feet of shelving.

Too Precious To Lose?

I can’t give away unread stuff, obviously, but I can’t give away the things I’ve read either. They all carry memories — of the places I read them (all of Austen one glorious fortnight with an equally bookish friend at the end of university), the people who gave them to me, the long-gone second-hand shops I found them in …

She has my sympathy.

I too have books that are precious because of the story of how they were bought or acquired.

Take my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery as an example.

I acquired this in 1993 as part of a prize from The Economist . It’s moved home three times and it’s covered in greasy dabs but it’s seen me through many large family Christmas lunches so there’s no way I’m giving that one away.

I’m just as reluctant to let go of my copy of Germinal by Emile Zola. It’s not simply that it’s my favourite title from his Rougon Macquart series but the fact that buying it became an international quest.

I’d taken it on holiday to South Africa. One hundred pages from the end I accidentally drenched it in sun tan cream. Desperate to know what happened I began a search in every bookshop in every town we visited. I found a second hand copy eventually, just a few days before we were due to fly home. Every time I look at the book I’m taken back to that holiday and that quest.

Decision Time

I used to keep most of my books even if they had no special memories or provenance.

I’d finish a novel, think “I might want to read this again” and shove it back on the shelf.

Did I ever go back and re-read? Hardly ever in fact. The only ones to get a second look-in were those that could be loosely described as classics. The rest just gathered dust.

The few attempts I made at a clear out usually resulted in me creating a pile to give away and my husband removing at least half of them because “I might want to read that”.

But that was in the days when I had only a modest collection of unread books. Once I started blogging, that collection exploded.

A few months ago I shared with you the strategy I’m adopting to bring a semblance of order to my piles of unread books. As much as I love having masses of books, I do need to scale back so I can actually get in the storage room where all of these are stacked.

There’s no big cull in the offing. I’m not taking drastic action and sweeping aside whole shelves. I’m just being more pragmatic.

That stack of books I thought I might re-read, is now about half its previous size.

I’m also being very disciplined with myself whenever I finish reading a book. Unless I am absolutely certain I will re-read it, it goes straight into a bag of books to try and sell via Ziffit.com or donate to family, friends or charity. Very rarely do I now keep the copy once I’m done reading it.

It was tough doing this at first. I had several false starts where I put a book into the bag only to take it out again the next day. It’s possible I suppose that I’ll experience some moments of regret in the future when I discover a book I fancy re-reading is one I no longer have. But I can’t see that being a major problem; I can always borrow it from the library.

The books I’ve kept are primarily classics. They are books that I think are ultra special. I suppose if I was a devotee of Marie Kondo I’d say they are the books that “spark joy” every time I look at them and read them. The ones I’ve given away might be perfectly good reads, it’s just that they are not special enough to warrant space on my shelves or on my floor.

Dystopian crime mash up The Last fails to deliver

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Dystopian fiction meets crime thriller in Hanna Jameson’s much-praised debut novel The Last

This is not a harmonious marriage however. The Last is novel in which the two genres seem to be in conflict with each other instead of blending into a new and exciting narrative style.  

The Last by Hanna Jameson

The premise is an interesting one. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the Western world. The guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities.

Twenty people remain in the hotel, cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive.  As days roll into weeks and the sun never shines or rust coloured clouds produce rain, the survivors become ever mor fearful for their future.

Some cannot deal with the uncertainty and immediately make plans to get to the nearest airport, ferry port or border. Others decide that suicide will bring a blessed relief. 

In the midst of the upheaval, the body of a young girl is found in a water tank. No-one recognises her or even recalls seeing her in the hotel. But it’s clear that she was murdered and the murderer may still be in the hotel. 

As the days progress, one guest, the American historian Jon Keller,  decides to make it his mission to search for the truth about the girl. He begins keeping a daily journal of events,  interviews with all the remaining guests and searches of the 1,000 rooms.

It’s through Jon’s eyes that we follow the reactions of his fellow guests, all of whom, have, until now been strangers. 

The Last contains plenty of dramatic incidents. The survivors discover bandits in the woods outside the hotel; an expedition to find food in the nearest city results in death and one guest suffers a drugs overdose.  

An Overcooked Narrative

But it felt like  Hanna Jameson was trying too hard, throwing just about everything possible into the mix. Strange footsteps in the night. A hotel with a history of unexplained deaths. Guests who disappear never to be seen again. Rivalries between the survivors. Uncertainty on who can be trusted and who is a danger.

If this is all familiar ground so too is Hannah Jameson’s depiction of how a group of people would react in the fact of catastrophe. They argue a lot; challenge the right of anyone to lay down rules; resort to violence; worry about radiation poisoning; suffer guilt about family members etc etc.

But it’s hard to get attached to any of them because they are ‘types’ rather than characters; people who seem to have been chosen because they can prove useful to the narrative.

We have a doctor, a chef and a security expert . One guest is a student who turns out to be an ace with a gun. There’s also a guy whose job involves working with traumatised children – very handy for trying to tease info out of the two children in the hotel.

I never felt invested in any of these characters and in fact kept forgetting who they were. Their tendency to speak in platitudes and cliches didn’t help make them any more real.

… what we think of as right and wrong doesn’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.

Murder Mystery Fizzles Out

Throwing a murder into the mixture didn’t really help. It’s honestly a mystery why it was even included because it’s not particularly central to the story. No-one in the hotel other than Jon seems particularly bothered about finding the murderer; they’re more concerned with just surviving. And even Jon seems to forget about his quest periodically.

I could be entirely wrong but my suspicion is that the murder element was slotted into the plot part way through the writing; a kind of force fit rather than an integral part of the story.

The Last is a promising concept. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining but the comparison doesn’t work. There’s little of Christie’s sense of mystery and even less of King’s menacing atmosphere.

Though it’s a fun read in many ways and does keep you reading the pages, ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its original promise.

10 Wonderful Classics. Number 4 is Absolutely Stunning.

a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading

Italio Calvino

Literary critics, historians, authors and avid readers all have different opinions on which works of literature can be considered “classic”. Are they novels which captivate because of their lyrical, figurative language? Are they works that ask profound questions about our society and what it means to be human?

The answer is of course Yes and Yes.

I think of classics as works that are unforgettable as a result. Reading them is an intensely rewarding experience. And the initial joy on first reading never goes away. Each time you read the book you discover a new layer of meaning or a new question to consider.

Coming up with a list of just 10 classics makes Brexit negotiations seem like a piece of cake. There are easily twice that number I could have included. I’ll enjoy seeing your reactions and debating what should or should not have made the list.

A Seventeenth Century Classic

1. Paradise Lost by John Milton  (1667).

Lucifer-The-Fallen
Depiction of Satan, illustration of the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 1866.From Wikepedia under creative commons licence

I can remember sitting on my bed in my university room feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial.

It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes that explained all of Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations since I was not blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible (the price for not paying attention in Sunday School) or Greek and Roman myths.

But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but utterly memorable.

Nineteenth Century Classics

This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. Starting with the first realist texts of the early part of the century, and ending in the realm of stream of consciousness.

So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that I never tire of reading.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice can be read as a romance story which ends happily ever after. But as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways.

At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.

4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

My all-time favourite novel.

I know many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast.

One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him.

Look beyond that however and you’ll find  a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted.

This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.

5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)

This was my first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him (see my list here) , this is the one that has  a special place in my affection.

It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter –  a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action  in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.  

Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is absolutely unforgettable.

6. The Awakening  by Kate Chopin (1898)

A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother. It was castigated at the time of its publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text. 

Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness.

The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?

Twentieth Century Classics 

Heart of the Matter


8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster  (1924)

Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.  

It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs.

The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.

9. Heart of the Matter  — Grahame Greene (1948).

Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences.

Greene himself didn’t care much for this book. But I love this story of a British police officer in an African outpost who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.

 
10. Cry, the Beloved Country  — Alan Paton (1948).

I’m staying in Africa for my final choice.

This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid. It features a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.  

Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland.

This is a novel of protest in a sense but it is also an appeal for justice.

So there you have my choices. What would be on your list?

How Technology Transformed My Relationship With Books

Audiobooks
That was then: Consuming books 1950s style

Remember the days when the only way to listen to a book was via the radio? 

The options were limited.  BBC Radio 4 had Book at Bedtime and about 15 minutes of a serialisation within Woman’s Hour. When Parliament wasn’t in session we had the treat of another 15 minutes slot in the morning where Today in Parliament normally sat in the schedules.

All fine if you happened to be somewhere near a radio at the allotted time. But if not, it was just hard luck.

How life has changed

Today I no longer have to tie myself to the radio schedules or sit in one place to listen. I can use BBC Sounds as a catch up service, listening in via my computer while I move about the house or garden.

But I don’t even have to restrict myself to radio broadcasts.

I can listen to audio recordings of books whenever I want to and wherever I want to be.

Thousands of books

Available any time of day or night

On every day of the year.

This is now: personalised audio streaming

Advances in technology have affected virtually every aspect of our lives. But I’ve only now realised just how much they’ve changed the way I engage with books, and in particular with audio versions of books.

1970s and 80s: All Hail The Cassette Tape

While searching for a screwdriver in our garage yesterday, I came across some of my husband’s very old and sad-looking cassette tapes.  I’ve yet to work out what they were doing in the boxes of tools mixed up with the pliers and hammers… but that’s maybe another story.

Cassette tapes? Never heard of them? They’re no longer around (except as a very niche trend.  But they were essential pieces of equipment for those of us whose teenage and young adult years spanned the seventies and eighties.

Audio cassettes (also known as compact cassettes) were little plastic cartridges containing two spools of magnetic tape. All you had to do was buy the cassette version of an album recorded by your favourite band; slot the  cassette into a player; grab your headphones and away you’d go into musical heaven.

The launch of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 gave even more flexibility – now we could listen while we walked, worked or just lounged around.

You could even create a playlist by recording selected tracks from another cassette or from a radio station.

But the joys of cassettes weren’t confined to music. In the mid 80s I discovered you could also get audio recordings of books on cassette. The local library had a great selection available at minimal cost. By then cassette players came as standard fixtures in cars. Instead of arriving at work agitated after listening to politicians argue on the prime time radio news programmes, I could be chilled having listened to a good book.

It wasn’t quite a case of  unbounded pleasure however because, though cassette tapes were light and portable, they did have one major flaw: the tape tended to get mangled inside the plastic casing after multiple plays.

I’d be in my car,  listening to a recording, when suddenly it would stop. Inevitably it happened at the most exciting/interesting part of the story.

If I was lucky, I could eject the cassette. But yards of tape would have come off the spools and would be lying crinkled and twisted in a spaghetti mess on my lap .

The remedy was primitive. And not one you could embark upon while stuck at the traffic lights.

You grabbed a pencil, wedged it into one spool and tried to hold it rigid while slowly attempting to wind the tape back onto the other spool. A painfully slow process with only a faint hope of success.

1990s: Shiny New Objects

Which was why, when the next gizmo came along, I embraced it with unparalleled joy. In 1982 the technology whizz kids at Philips and Sony launched a new audio storage device they called the compact disc (CD).

It marked the beginning of the end for the cassette tape. And the introduction to a new way of consuming more books

It took a few years before I latched onto CDs but I rapidly became a fan, ditching all my cassette tapes in favour of these ultra-light shiny objects. I wasn’t the only one – most of us had purpose build CD storage towers in our homes and wallet-style carrying cases in our cars.

In 1993, the tide had turned completely and sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes for the first time. By then the technology giants had figured out how to make CD players in cars shock proof (no more skipping a track when you drove over a pothole). A few years later the first portable CD player, the CD Walkman, came on the market making it easy to take your music wherever you went.

I still have one of these portable CD players though I seldom use it.

If you just wanted music you’d be in a good spot because the albums were cheap to buy. Just as well because the discs had a terrible tendency to get scratched. It was partly my own fault. I kept forgetting to put them into their protective cases. So they’d be ruined and unplayable.

But I wanted audiobooks. And that had its own challenges.

The storage capacity of each disc meant a whole book required at least six discs – sometimes double that for one of the chunkier classics. It made them way too expensive to buy, especially at the rate I would get through them. The library fortunately began investing in the new format but a whole audio book was quite a large package. Fine if you just wanted to listen in the car but not much use for taking on flights or long train rides. They took up far too much space.

Technology for a New Century

In 2001 Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, invited us to say “hello” to the brave new world of full portability and solid state technology.

The days of flimsy tape and scratchy discs were over, he said. It was time for the era of the IPod. A small device with astonishing capacity and potential.

It wasn’t his promise of 1,000 songs in my pocket that appealed to me most. What really sold me on the iPod was that I could use it to listen to audio books. It didn’t just store these recordings, the associated ITunes application  gave me access to an enormous library via a few clicks. Not just a library of books, but with the birth of podcasts in 2004, a library of thousands of programmes and discussions about books.

I bought my first iPod in 2002 during a work trip to Michigan. I couldn’t drive back to my hotel fast enough so I could open the box and begin playing with my new toy.

Except that I couldn’t.

This much heralded white gizzmo only slightly bigger than a cigarette packet refused to function. Not even when I discovered that I first had to charge the battery. The old cassette and CD players never had that problem – all they needed was a power supply or a few AA batteries.

Eight hours or so later and still not so much as a peep. So back to the store for a replacement. Same thing happened again. By now I was seriously questioning whether the iPod was all it was cracked up to be.

It was. It still is.

Every once in a while a new product comes along that changes everything.

Steve Jobs, 2001

Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he made that claim about the Ipod. It certainly transformed part of my life.

Listening to an audio book made the long flights I had to take for work much easier to bear. They helped when international time zone differences  would see me awake in the early hours of the morning in a strange hotel room, unable to get back to sleep. In more recent years when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment I used my little machine to access some relaxation and breathing exercises I could get via the ITunes application.

Are We Ever Satisfied? 

Technology never stays still does it?  Each generation of the iPod since 2001 has been smaller. And lighter. And more powerful.  I’m on my fourth device now and can’t imagine being without one. Although my phone has some of the same functions I still prefer to listen to audio via the iPod.

As enamoured as I am with this brand of MP3 player, it does have its frustrations.

  • The battery charge doesn’t last anywhere as long as it did on the early versions.
  • ITunes library is now over-complicated. It seems impossible to completely delete Podcast episodes.
  • Too many apps I don’t want but can’t delete (like my non existent stock portfolio).
  • In-ear headphones that keep falling out. Are my ears different sizes to everyone else’s? I’ve bought many, many pairs over the years both low price and high end. And none of them have worked. I’ve resorted to using the hook over versions but the wiring is fragile so they break easily.

I’ve learned to live with most of these frustrations. But there’s one that drives me crazy.

I absolutely hate ear phone cables. There I’ve said it.

They always always always end up in a knot. I wind them carefully as soon as I finish using them. Tuck them into my bag in a neat roll. But you can bet the next time I go to use them they’ll be in a mess. Again.

Added to this is that they get in my way in the gym, dangling right where my arm wants to move – invariably I catch my thumb on the cable and the machine goes careering onto the floor. It’s favourite landing place is underneath the treadmill; a retrieval process which involves much swearing and grunting. By the time the two of us are re-united, the play function has helpfully skipped a chapter or two.

My Wishlist For the Future

Technology never stands still. Earlier today came news that Apple will launch a new video streaming service and a new version of the Apple iPhone. Samsung will launch its new folding phone within a few days (a snip at $1800). None of these advancements interest me.

What I really want, what I really really want is a more streamlined way to listen to my audio books. One that

  • doesn’t involve dangling cables
  • connects to the player via Bluetooth but doesn’t require me to wear heavy headphones ( the rap artist look doesn’t appeal)
  • fits snugly in my ears
  • allows voice control to select tracks, change volume etc – that way I can keep both hands on the steering wheel or go walking in cold weather without having to remove gloves.

See, my needs are quite simple.  These advancements are not as sexy as those the techno folks are undoubtedly working on right now. I just hope they don’t come up with something that robs me of my ability to listen to books easily, cheaply and with great sound quality.

Haunted by A Gentle Survivor [Review]

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

It would be hard to find a book on my shelves with a less exciting title than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. The synopsis didn’t sound promising either. Which is why this novella remained on those shelves unread for two years.

But all assumptions this would be a dull book were swept aside after only five pages. Although nothing of any great magnitude happens throughout the 160 pages, this tale of a quiet, unassuming man who lives a simple life in an alpine valley, captivated and bewitched me.

A Whole Life

A Whole Life is exactly what it says on the cover: the tale of the entire life of one man.

That man is Andreas Egger. His life is unremarkable. He never achieves greatness. He can’t boast of sporting prowess or exceptional intelligence. Nor can he point to awards or inventions. He’s just a dependable man, a hard worker who simply wants to get on with life as quietly as possible.

He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.

Andreas arrives in an Austrian mountain village as a four year old boy. He dies more than 70 years later, only once having left the valley when called up towards the end of the 2nd World War.

Life does not prove kind to this man.

Andreas has no clear memory of his mother, never mentions any father. The relative who gives him a home beats him so extensively, he’s left with a permanent link. But somehow Andreas, slow of speech and awkward in his movements, survives.

He grows strong, stronger than any other man in his village. He finds love only to lose it after a pitifully short time; escapes death in avalanches and storms while working as a cable car mechanic and endures hell as a Russian prisoner of war.

When he returns to his valley he makes his home in a sparsely furnished one room shed embedded into the hillside. To earn a living he reinvents himself as a guide for tourists on walking holidays.

Sometimes it was a little lonely up there, but he didn’t regard his loneliness as a deficiency. He had no one but he all he needed and that was enough.

Despite all the hardships, Andreas never descends into self pity or recriminations. Never rages against his ill-fortune. He’s not without hopes and desires but doesn’t fret about what might have been.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. 

Andreas simply accepts his lot and endures whatever life throws at him. One day at a time.

Amazed By Life

The Whole Life gives us a tender portrait of an unassuming man endowed with more capacity for forbearance than most individuals. Seethaler’s narrative voice is equally calm and measured throughout, drawing us ever deeper into Andreas’ inner thoughts as we follow every twist and turn of this man’s life.

The other villagers view him as an odd figure, “an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a freezing cold mountain stream to wash every morning.”

But though his needs are simple, Andreas is not a simple man in the sense of lacking in intelligence. He delights in the beauty of the landscape around him. He marvels at the changes in the world around him; the arrival of electricity in the valley, man’s landing on the Moon. He accepts them all in the spirit of “silent amazement” and wonder, with which he views his own life:

He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

This is an evocative, tender novella, lacking in sentimentality yet deeply moving in its portrayal of a quiet soul.

Fast Facts: A Whole Life

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna but grew up in Germany.  

A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, was his fifth novel but the first to be translated into English. It was published in 2015 and went on to be shortlisted for 2017 Booker International Prize and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award

I read this as part of my booksofsummer reading list.

Summer Reading 2019: It’s A Wrap

Summer reading

Clearly I am a fan of taking things to the wire.

I finished book 13 from my #summer reading list with five minutes to spare before the end of the deadline. But if September 3 had come and gone and I still had a few pages left to read, I don’t imagine anything disastrous would have befallen me.

I’m pretty chuffed that I managed to read 13 books. . I know plenty of other bloggers reached the heights of 20 but that was never going to happen for me.

If I was being disingenuous I would also count the three books that I started but abandoned half way. But somehow saying that I read 14.5 books doesn’t have much of a ring about it!

My original summer reading list had 15 titles. They were all designed to take me on a virtual summer holiday around the world. The original list and the list of what I actually read are somewhat different however.

Passport Stamps Collected

I never did get to India and my journey to Asia wasn’t very successful but I did still manage to visit Wales (twice) ; Austria; Croatia; Canada; US; Jamaica; Australia, England (three times) and Rwanda.

The books from the list that I finished were :

Wales: Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

USABreakfast at Tiffanys by Truman Capote

AustriaA Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Croatia: Hotel Tito by  Ivana Simić Bodrožić.

Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Canada: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

AustraliaShell by Kristina Olsson

Journeys Abandoned

I got about half way through these books but it was a struggle. The Midwife was about the weakest.

FinlandThe Midwife by Katja Kettu. This was one of those novels that assumes readers are deeply interested in the historical background of the story. While a certain amount of that can be interesting and helpful, with this book it was confusing and dull.

IndonesiaTwilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis. This started well, focusing on a desperately poor man who is eking out a living as a rubbish collector. But then the whole book got bogged down in a discussion about Communist. If I wanted to know that much about Marxist theory I cold just have bought a pool on political ideology.

Malaysia: Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. This was on the reading list for a MOOC course on historical fiction although I never got around to reading it at the time. It’s based on traditional beliefs about death and the afterlife held by the Chinese population of Malaysia. I enjoyed reading that element but then the book turned into some odd story about a girl who tries to solve a murder in the spirit world. Weird…

Unplanned Detours

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

When I put that summer reading I overlooked four books I had committed to review. This is what took me off course and kept me in the UK for longer than expected.

EnglandA Single Thread  by Tracy Chevalier

England : Sanditon by Jane Austen

England: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Wales: The Jeweller by Carys Lewis

Rwanda: The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga. This was a replacement for one of the books I abandoned.

New Tickets Needed

These are the books I never got around to reading. All except for the Kate Duigan have been in my ‘owned but unread’ shelves for several years.

Summer Reading

IndiaA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

New Zealand: Ships by Fiona Duigan

China: Frog Music by Mo Yan

GermanyAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

I might squeeze in one or two before the year is out. Given my lack of success with the two Asian authors on my summer reading list, I might try the Mo Yan. Have any of you read it? Would you recommend this book?

Why I’m Passionate About My Library Card

Isaac Asimov - public libraries

Do you remember the first time you entered a public library?

The feeling of excitement when you received your first membership card?

The thrill of turning a corner to find thousands of books just waiting to be picked off the shelf and read?

I was nine years old when I joined the public library in my home town. It wasn’t a grand affair – no marble pillars framed the entrance nor where there any sculptures of Greek gods adorning the roof.

It was just a modest double fronted building that looked more like a house than a public building. It’s the yellow building in this photograph.

Doesn’t look much does it?

But to a young reader like myself it was paradise.

I had learned to read when I was four years old. In those early years my school could just about keep up with my appetite for more and more reading material.

But as I grow older and changed schools, my demands quickly exceeded supply. Neither my pocket money nor the family income stretched to buying new books every week.

Discovering New Worlds

The public library came to my rescue. Although it didn’t have a huge stock, it had enough copies of classics like Treasure Island, Heidi and Black Beauty to keep me going, supplemented by birthday and Christmas presents and the occasional treats. That building became my route into new worlds and new experiences entirely different from everything I had known before.

Isaac Asimov captured the power of the public library so well in a letter in 1971. It was in response to a request from a children’s librarian at a newly opened public library in Troy, Michigan who wanted to attract as many youngsters to the premises as possible.

Marguerite Hart asked a number of notable people to send a congratulatory letter to the children of Troy, explaining what they felt were the benefits of visiting such a library. Here’s Asimov’s response.

This was as true for me as a nine year as it was when I was sixteen years old and used the same public library to introduce me to translated fiction. I spent the entire summer engrossed in Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Tolstoy.

How much of their work I understood is another question entirely. The point was that I was stretching my brain, getting myself ready for more advanced literature studies. Sadly the curriculum never encompassed these guys and stayed mainly in the tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, and Milton. The Tolstoy did prove useful in our discussions on Russian history though.

Life Long Supporter

Fast forward more than 50 years and I’m still a proud card-carrying member of my local public library system. I wish I still had one of those original cards (maybe you had one too – they were small brown envelopes in effect) . But all I have now is a credit card style.

Even though I can afford to buy my own copies of books I still love popping into one of the local branches.

I use my public library system to sample authors I’ve never read or genres I’m uncertain about. And to read newly published titles ( as a rule I don’t buy hardcopy versions and sometimes it’s too long a wait for the paperback) .

If the non fiction selection was better I’d go looking for some poetry or biographies but unfortunately the stock is heavily weighted to celebrity memoirs.

Now of course my options are not limited to physical books. I can sit at home, scroll through the on line database of audio books and ebooks. Within minutes they get delivered to my computer. I love the convenience but nothing beats a visit to a bricks and mortar building and a browse through real shelves!

In Defence of Public Libraries

I’m a staunch advocate of the value of the free public library ethos. Always have been. Always will.

But I wonder how many years are left in which I – and the eight million other active library members in the UK – can continue to enjoy the benefits of this system?

In the UK, the future of the public library is under threat. Between 2010 and 2017 at least 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland. This is the result of successive years of budget cuts by the local authorities in whose control they lie.

Although the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says these authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide a library service, they are getting around the legislation by converting professionally-run branches into community and volunteer led libraries.

It happened in my village three years ago. Our small but much appreciated library was threatened with closure. Residents were essentially threatened – unless we took over the operation (and all the costs), the branch would close.

I was so angry I tracked down a solicitor willing to take our case to the High Court. Here we are on the day of the hearing.

We lost (on what the legal team agreed was a technicality). The village library is still open though with significantly reduced hours and struggles to raise enough funds just to keep the lights on.

The moral of the story?

If you have a public library near you, please please use it.

You don’t even have to borrow any books (or DVDs, CDs). Many larger libraries use an electronic pad at the door which automatically registers number of visitors. Footfall counts when it comes to reviews of libraries.

Use It Or Lose It

Nor does it matter if you do borrow books but never read them. The library will still include your borrowing in their performance statistics – the more items issued, the harder it is for a local authority to argue the library is not being used.

But also remember that in 28 countries around the world every time a book is borrowed, the author gets a small fee. It’s a scheme called Public Lending Rights and is designed to compensate authors for the potential loss of sales from their works being available in public libraries. You can find a list of participating countries here

Public libraries are as important today as they were when I was a child. But if we don’t use them and don’t value them, one day we may wonder why there is a derelict building where once there was a treasure house.


Are you a supporter of public libraries? What do they mean to you? I’d love to hear your story so please leave a comment below

Touching tale of dignity and vulnerability [book review]

Dignity by Alys Conran

In her second novel, Dignity, Alys Conran delivers a touching tale of three women separated by generations, history and culture. Yet they are united in their spirited assertion of their right to independence and their search for the meaning of ‘home’.

Through the first person narratives of these women, Dignity takes us from a modern English seaside resort that has seen better days to pre-war India under British control. As the narrative progresses it asks questions about the nature of home and the impact of colonialism on the individual.

Dignity2

Pride and Dignity in Old Age

First we encounter Magda who lives alone in a seaside town that is well past its best. Confined to a wheelchair in a sprawling, disintegrating Victorian house, her only visitors are care workers. Magda resents their presence as she fiercely tries to maintain her dignity in the face of declining health and advancing years.

Every care worker despatched to help her feed and wash, experiences the brunt of her bad temper and sharp tongue. Shusheela, a part time student and daughter of Bengali immigrants, is the only care assistant who finds a way to penetrate Magda’s stubborn exterior. She recognises that Magda uses rudeness as a shield and that “underneath it all, she’s desperately sad.”

Shusheela has problems of her own. Still grieving after her mother’s death, she is trying to support her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is is suffering from PTSD. And then she discovers she is pregnant.

The discovery becomes the catalyst for an unlikely – and sometimes fraught – relationship between these two women. Magda’s practical, no nonsense attitude proves to be exactly the support Susheela needs. She recognises that this girl is not like the legion of other care workers – this one has dignity.

The girl’s Bengali heritage unlocks Magda’s memories of her childhood in colonial India and the terrible secrets surrounding her mother Evelyn.

It’s Evelyn’s story that most captured my interest. She arrives in India as the young wife of an engineer ( a man she barely knows), apprehensive about how to create a new home up to the standard of that left behind in Britain.

Upholding The Raj Tradition

Even before her ship docks she is marked out as different from the other British wives. She has brought no romantic novels with her nor does she share their love of gossip. Dignity shows how adjusting to her new life and the expectations of a Raj wife, prove challenging. She dislikes the way servants are treated and the parochial attitudes of the other wives.

She tries desperately to maintain her independence, to forge her own way of dealing with India. But gradually Evelyn changes; worn down by the expectations of respectability and the pressure to conform. The schoolteacher who arrives in India as warmhearted and independent in spirit becomes as cold as her husband and cannot even relate to her daughter.

… I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…

Dignity is a touching story that shows the damage of the colonial experience. You feel for Evelyn in her confusion on first arriving in India and in the criticism she faces because of her relationships with the servants.

It’s evident that this is a story that cannot end happily for her.

But Evelyn is not the only victim. For Magda having been raised surrounded by servants and privileges  is suddenly despatched back to England. A country that is not Home, but a foreign land. One in which she will be alone.

Dignity is a novel I enjoyed right from the first pages. The characters could easily have been stereotypes but Alys Conran has made each woman distinctly human and grounded in reality.

As the story wends it way through the lives of these three women it raises questions about the effect of the Colonial experience and also the meaning of “Home”.

Views of Home

Evelyn thinks about “Home” all the time she is India. It’s what all the wives do, eagerly scrutinising the outfits of any new arrival so they can copy the latest fashion. But Evelyn that all their memories are idealised the longer they are out of England. Home for her is

sitting in my mother’s kitchen, shelling peas, with light flowing in through her net curtains and the sound of children playing outside…

But she knows this is an England that cannot exist. That home is fading just as much as she is, that “the very guts of me are being worked on by this India ….and I am slowly less and less of what I was.”

Her daughter’s view of home is significantly less idealised. Though there is a doormat at her house which bears the word “Home’ this is a building which she views more like a fortress. A house that “has to hold out against the changing world outside.”

This is a touching, thoughtful novel, showing characters who are vulnerable and uncertain how to deal with the issues that life has thrown at them.

I had enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. But I had wondered whether she would be as effective when she broke out of her Welsh milieu. The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Dignity by Alys Conran: Fast Facts

Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, in April 2019. My copy was provided free by the publishers in return for an honest review.

Alys Conran was born in North Wales. She is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. In 2017 she won the Book of the Year prize in the Literature Wales Awards for her debut novel Pigeon.

How Dylan Thomas Found Inspiration In A House

I’ve long been curious about the lives of authors. Their writing routines, the writers that inspired them; their quirky habits and the places where they lived, worked and died.

So I thought I’d start a series of posts about the homes that provided shelter, solace possibly, inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents.

Let’s kick off with the most famous literary export from Wales – the poet and playwright Dylan Thomas.

From his “wordsplashed hut”, perched on a cliff, Dylan Thomas watched eagles and egrets wheel and cry above the river mouth, and composed what were to be his last poems.

Dylan Thomas Falls In Love

Dylan Thomas boathouse
View of The Boathouse from across the estuary

Thomas lived with his family in The Boathouse in the Welsh village of Laugharne for four years. He’d fallen in love with the place when he first saw it on a day’s outing with a friend. He became, he said one of these residents who arrived by bus and simply forgot to leave. And it wasn’t simply because the village had seven pubs! 

Rather, it was the “timeless, mild, beguiling” nature of Laugharne that appealed to Thomas. 

In one of the prose pieces published the collection Quite Early One Morning he described it as a place:

of herons, cormorants (known here as billy duckers), castle, churchyard, gulls, ghosts, geese, feuds, scares, scandals, cherry trees, mysteries, jackdaws in the chimneys, bats in the belfry, skeletons in the cupboards, pubs, mud, cockles, flatfish, curlews, rain, and human, often all too human, beings.

From The Boathouse (“My seashaken house / On a breakneck of rocks”) he could look across the  estuary of the Towy where it flowed into the vast Carmarthen Bay and beyond it to the cliffs of the Gower peninsula. 

Laugharne
View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

The four years he lived in Laugharne coincided with  a creative surge for the poet. He used a shed a little further along the lane from the house as his study.

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

A Poet’s Inspiration

It was here that he wrote some of his most famous poems, including Do not go gentle into that good night, and Over St John’s Hill, which depicts hawks swooping over the river mouth in search of prey.  

The sounds and sights of the estuary were captured in another poem, written in 1944 to mark a walk he took on his thirtieth birthday to the shoulder of  Sir John’s Hill. 

Dylan Thomas lived in The Boathouse for four years from 1949. It was from Laugharne that he departed for his ill-fated trip to New York where he died suddenly in 1953.

Follow in Dylan Thomas’ Footsteps

Today visitors to Laugharne can experience both The Boathouse and Thomas’s Writing Shed. They are well worth a visit.

The house is now a museum which contains memorabilia from the family and some of the original furniture, including Dylan’s father’s desk.  The interior has been returned to its 1950s appearance, with a recording of Thomas’s voice playing in the background.

When you’ve finished in the house and enjoyed your cream tea, do take a moment to walk around the side of the building from which you get a fantastic view of the estuary. The way the light plays on the water is simply magical and hard to leave behind.

Dylan Thomas house
Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthanshire

You can’t go into the writing shed itself but you can get a good view just by peering through the window. It’s just one room that has been set as it looked when Dylan Thomas used it – even down to the scrumpled sweet wrappers on the floor amid discarded sheets of paper (early drafts perhaps?)

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne,

Explore further

If a visit to both these places gives you an appetite for more Dylan Thomas connections, you are in luck.

You can re-tread the route Dylan Thomas took on his birthday (celebrated in the Birthday Walk poem). It skirts the castle ruins and runs along the estuary with information boards along the way.

Or you go into the town of Laugharne to visit Brown’s Hotel (one of his favoured watering holes).

You can listen to Thomas reading with almost too much gusto, via  this recording for the BBC).

3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.

I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .

It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.

But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.

Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.

This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.

It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.

The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.

Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.

Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel,  about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. 

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.

In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.

 

Amsterdam : A Novel by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.

It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.

The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.

This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.

I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.

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