10 books growing old on my ‘to read’ list

This week’s topic in the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by  The Broke and the Bookish  is a free choice. Since I have been spending a few hours today clearing up the spreadsheet I used to keep track of all the books I own but have not yet read, I thought I’d share the ten titles that are growing beards because they’ve been on my shelf so long.

Riddle of the Sands:  1903 novel by  Erskine Childers that I’ve had since the late 1970s. I bought it at a time when I was reading some of John Le Carre’s fiction and heard that his potrayal of the world of spies was influenced by the realistic detail found in Childers’ novel. I’ve tried to read it a few times but never got much further than chapter 2 – I was irritated by the amount of detail about sailing.

devil white city-1Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: bought in 2011 in Chicago airport on the recommendation of the assistant. Opened it just after take off to discover it was a non fiction account of how two men created the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. A lesson here – don’t buy a book when you’re in a desperate hurry.

Contested Will by James Shapiro: Also acquired in 2011, this time as a birthday gift I think. Shapiro revisits the debate about who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, assessing the various conspiracy theories and the list of people variously named as the real author. It’s a follow up to his book 1599 which  is a very readable study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth: yes I know this is considered to be one of the ‘great American novels’ but I’ve not read it. Come to think of it I don’t believe I’ve read anything by Roth. Looks like I bought it in 1998 presumably after I’d seen a lot of commentary about it since it was published the previous year.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins. My copy is a second hand edition that came into my house after September 2000. I know this because it has a message (with a date) on the flyleaf which makes it clear this  was a birthday gift for someone called Cath. I’ve read all the major novels by Collins and a few of the minor ones (sad to say he wrote some duds) – this one seems to have divided opinions. T.S Eliot said it was melodrama and nothing more but other critics have found

a monster calls-1A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This was given to me as a Christmas gift in 2011, the year it was published. I’d read an interview with the illustrator in which he explained how he approached the tricky task of depicting a monster without scaring the hell out of young readers. The examples accompanying the article were superb so I wanted the book just for that reason.

Ethan Frome  by Edith Wharton. This is a slim novella so I don’t even have the excuse that it’s a chunky book.

George Eliot , The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes: this is a hard-backed copy that came from a sale at my local library. It’s largely a biography but also includes some analysis of her major works.

The Comedians by Graham Greene. One of the few Greene novels I haven’t read.

And the prize for the oldest of them goes to….

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  How could I have completed an English literature degree programme without having read this landmark text? Wouldn’t you have thought it would be required reading especially since Woolf was one of the authors we studied? Maybe that tells you something about the nature of literature studies in the 1970s?? I bought a copy anyway, put it in a prominent place on a shelf in my college room so I could impress my visitors. And on a shelf it has stayed all these years.

Is social reading the future?

reading future

Reading is a quiet and solitary experience for me. I open my book in print or on a screen and immediately immerse myself in that world. I might look up now and again to share a comment with my husband/friend/relative sitting nearby. But generally when I’m reading, I’m in a world of my own, so completely absorbed that I’m oblivious to the passage of time. 

Some academics however, are trying to get me — and you — to change and embrace the idea that our experience of texts can be enhanced if we became more social readers. Social reading can mean different things — to the manufacturers of the Kindle for example, it describes the function where the Kindle reader keeps a record of your highlighted passages and aggregates them with those of anonymous others so that you can see which passages have generated the most interest. 

But for academics, this isn’t social reading. Nor does the term mean going on-line and chatting about a book via Twitter or Facebook or on sites like Goodreads. Nor do they mean the conversation you might have at the coffee machine or in a book club meeting because such casual discussions tend to peter out fairly quickly and rarely get beyond the superficial in their view. What the academics are interested in is a deeply immersive group–based collaborative process that happens on-line. It can involve several readers or even hundreds. All of them read the same text, post comments on it and respond to other people’s comments. Now you might think that’s what you’re doing when you join a ‘read-a-long’ and it’s true this is a fairly simple example of social reading. But for a more sophisticated approach — and the one the academics are most excited about — you’d need to get involved in a synchronous reading where people are reading and commenting on the same text simultaneously. 

I’d never heard of this concept of social reading until recently when I joined an online course run by Coursera about ‘Reading in a Digital Age’. Apparently social reading is one of six strategies we could employ to engage with a text (see  below for the list of strategies).

The Golden Notebook experiment is being held up as the leading example of this kind of social reading. This is where seven women all read the novel The Golden Notebook by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing and they made comments on the text as they made their progress over a period of six weeks. If you go to the Golden Notebook experiment website you’ll see that these readers engaged in what’s called ‘close reading’ and they used a dynamic margin where they added their reactions to the text  as they went along.

 Other platforms have developed that try to do something similar but not in such a closed group environment. Glose is another platform offering a place to engage with other readers – you choose from their selection of books (some free, some you have to buy), read them on any device and then you can highlight/comment etc. I’ve dipped into this but haven’t been that wowed by it – the choice of free books is limited to the classics (because they are out of copyright) and of the few texts I’ve added to my stream I can see a lot of people highlighting passages but hardly any comments. So how does this really let me ‘engage’ with other readers as the platform developers claim is the benefit? To me this is nothing more than the highlight function on my Kindle. There is no deep or extended conversation going on here as the proponents of social reading would have us believe is the future. 

CommentPress and DigressIt are plug-ins for WordPress sites that that lets your readers comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Since I don’t have a self-hosted WordPress site I can’t get these to work so have no idea how useful these plug-ins are. ReadUps is a web-based  that lets  group of readers discuss a particular piece of text – for example if I wanted to get your reactions to this post i could create a new ReadUp, invite you to join (you use your Twitter account to do this) and then you’d be able to add reactions etc in the margin alongside the original text (rather than in the comments underneath). I can set a time limit of up to 2 months for the discussion.  The founder Travis Alber said in an interview that the idea was to provide a platform to enable readers to do what they love doing – discussing a book. If anyone fancies having a go at this, let me know and I’ll set one up as an experiment. 

Apparently this form of social interaction is getting traction. Some teachers have used the platforms as a way to extend the classroom discussion instead of bringing it to a halt at the door. At the University of North Carolina for example one class held a week-long discussion about An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce which resulted in more than 500 comments.  

The ability to carry out a conversation in the margin turns out to be particularly useful for scholars who are using it to conduct new forms of open peer review. MIT Press use it for example to get feedback on a book by Noah Wardrip–Fruin called Expressive Processing and MediaCommons did something similar with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. I can see how much more efficient it would be to get all comments and reactions stored in one place instead of sending out a document as an email attachment and getting individual reponses which then have to be collated. But you can already do that in a number of standard word-processing packages so I’m struggling to see the benefit of a another web-based platform other than its just easier to read comments in a margin. 

So I’m still not convinced that these examples really demonstrate that a collaborative practice of social reading truly enhances our understanding of literary texts. Maybe its too early to come to an opinion one way or another and more experimentation would need to be done but from what I’ve seen of the ‘commercial’ sites, there is a long way to go before this becomes a mainstream idea. 

What types of social reading are there?

If you’re interested in learning more about social reading take a look at an essay by Bob Stein, the founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. The essay is called  ‘A Taxonomy of Social Reading: A Proposal’.

Six reading strategies

  • Hypertext reading: essentially this is what we do whenever we look up some info on a web page and follow hyperlinks to move rapidly to other texts, to images and sounds.
  • Close reading: if you’ve ever followed any academic program on literature, you’ll be very familiar with this strategy. It’s where you ignore all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts and zoom in on the words on the page, teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices and structures that make up a poem, a play, or a novel.
  • Distant reading: This is a relatively new concept introduced by an Italian scholar called Franco Moretti. It’s the direct opposite of close reading. Instead of focusing on individual literary texts, distant readers survey, analyse, and describe hundreds, even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders.
  • Surface reading: Also a relatively new approach, surface reading

    don’t look at what is in the book – but at the stuff the book is made from; it’s physical format if you like. For surface readers, it not only makes a great difference, whether we’re reading a print book or an e-book. It also makes a great difference, whether we’re reading, say, a Shakespeare play in a folio edition, a leather bound first edition, a 21st century cheap reprint, a hardback, a paperback, whether we read any play, novel, or poetry collection in whatever kind of form. 

  • Historical contextualisation: Another standard element of the toolkit of literary analysis, this strategy looks outside of the text itself and to the historical context in which it was written. How does it draw on contemporary events, how does it fit into social debates at that time; how does it give expression to the zeitgeist at the moment of its creation?
  • Social reading: a collaborative way of reading and discussing texts on line

Miss Silver’s Past by Josef Škvorecký #bookreview

Prague-Wenceslas-SquareMiss Silver’s Past by the Czech author Josef Škvorecký is a book I wish I had not read.

It started off reasonably well if not in stellar fashion, but a quarter of the way through the cracks began to show. By the half way mark they had grown to  fissures and by the end, they were canyons. Now you might wonder why, if this was so poor a novel, I didn’t abandon it long before the end. I think it was because I kept hoping it would improve. About a hundred pages from the end I realised it wouldn’t but by then I’d invested so much time in reading it, that I decided I may as well limp to the finish line.

This is a novel written from the perspective of Karel Leden who is a Comrade editor  in a state-run publishing house in Prague. Every novel, every poetry collection; every book in fact, is subject to rigorous scrutiny by an editorial board and its advisors. Any element that doesn’t fit with Party philosophy has to be deleted/rewritten no matter how strongly the author believes in their work. Weighed down by this bureaucratic restrictive regime, Leden becomes cynical and frustrated. Then into his life comes the beautiful, elusive Lenka Silver.  Leden has the hots for her and pulls many tricks to get her to reciprocate but all are to no effect; she seems more keen on Leden’s friend and his boss for reasons that don’t become apparent until the final few pages.

Now according to the blurb,  ‘passions rise and suddenly there is a murder’. Well yes, a body is discovered and there’s a suggestion it was the result of foul play. But it doesn’t happen until we’d got to page 260 in a book of 297 pages and then the identification of the killer is rushed through in about 5 pages so hardly a pivotal moment in the narrative.

In between we get scene after scene where Leden trails after Silver like some mooning puppy dog, declaring his love repeatedly only to meet with rejection. And then there are interminable editorial discussions in the publishing house offices where the wrong decision could lead to a major contretemps. The staff thus wrestle with problems like whether it was risky to capitalise the word God since  “Marxist science had conclusively demonstrated the non-existence of a higher power, and using an uppercase G could be interpreted as a blasphemy against the founder of socialism.”  The question takes them back to a previous discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin which some staff members felt problematic because of its anti-Marxist religiosity.

My supervisor at once grasped the potential peril and gravity of the situation … He cut off any further discussion by proposing that we would not publish the book in its original version, but in the form of a so-called adaptation.  this work was turned over to an indigent Latin translator who adapted the work in such a masterly fashion that Uncle Tom talked like a trade-unionist and all references to the non existent deity were eliminated.

Running through Miss Silver’s Past is a debate about whether to publish a book by a young female author who had already caused problems when one of her short stories had to be removed from a magazine at the eleventh hour.  Leden recognises the author’s talent and sees it’s exactly how he had hoped to write himself. Others in the publishing house consider it pornographic and demand extensive re-writes before they will even contemplate approving it for publication.

An independent reader to whom the novel is sent for review reports back:

The novel shows signs of an uncritical acceptable of fashionable Western literary phenomena, such as a decadent interest in degenerate aspects of life, the mixing of chronological planes, emphasis on sex, alcoholism, violence and a variety of esoteric allusions. … I have no doubt that Cibulka’s novel [the author’s name] would be greeted by the snobbish circles with the greatest enthusiasm. It is therefore the duty of a socialist publisher to reject such a work and to exert an educational influence upon the author, urging her to think more deeply about the significance of her work so her future creativity would be free of modish piquancy and so that she would try to portray the whole truth about our lives — lives which certainly have their difficult moments but in which hope and good cheer predominate.

In a foreword to my edition Grahame Greene comments on this passage that it would be ‘hilariously funny’ except that the livelihood of a writer in Czechoslvakia in the 1970s did depend on the control exerted by shadowy figures who determined who – and what – got published. Which presumably means that Greene sees Miss Silver’s Past as reflection of the constraints under which Škvoreckýe himself had to operate.  But if Škvorecký intended this novel as a critique of the political system’s attitude to authors and books, it was so thinly veiled as to be meaningless. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, the plot was dull and the attempts at comic irony were so lacklustre (how The Guardian found it ‘hilarious’ I can’t imagine) they barely caused me to even smile. I did however yawn, several times.

Footnotes

 

About the book: Miss Silver’s Past was written in 1969 and was the last of Josef Škvorecký’s books to have appeared in Prague. My edition was published by Vintage in 1995, translation is by Peter Kussi

About the Author:  Josef Škvorecký was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia in 1924. His first two novels were banned by the censors because of its lack of socialist realism and its praise of the ‘decadent’ jazz music of the west. After the Soviet invasion of 1968 he and his wife left for Canada where he became Professor of English at the University of Toronto and was able to see his work in print.   He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980.

In an interview with Paris Review, Škvorecký talked extensively about his work and the themes that influenced his writing.

Why I read this book: I bought this in 2015 when I was just embarking on my project to read literature from a more extensive range of countries than I had experienced to date. Škvorecký’s name came up as one of the key writers from the Czech Republic.

Back on the acquisition wagon

At the start of this year I decided my goal would be to read the books I already own and to rein back on new acquisitions. I’t’s not a book ban by any stretch of the imagination – I know that would be impossible for me since the minute I declared such a ban I’d be itching to get to the bookshop. It’s more of a restraint on buying/acquiring. And I’ve astonished myself by just how restrained I’ve been. Until this week that is. Four new books have mysteriously made their way into my home. I can’t imagine how they got there – perhaps the book fairies placed them there when I was asleep??

These are the four new acquisitions which are now in the pile I categorise as “waiting for a space in the shelves”.

Our nearest Tesco supermarket recently introduced a book donation shelf so of course I had to take a peek when I was in the store. Mostly the donated items were the usual crime fiction/romance/thriller titles but oh joy, there was a Virago Modern Classic in amongst them. I’d never heard of Maura Laverty but for the price of a donation to charity it was mine. I’ve since discovered she was an Irish author writing in in the early 1940s but whose first four novels (of which Never No More is the first) were banned in Ireland until the 1960s.

Flush with this success I called in at a second hand bookshop in Cardiff with a mind to buy some of the Virago Modern Classics I’d seen on my last visit. There wasn’t much of interest this time around though. But in browsing the shelves my eye was drawn to the familiar grey colour of one spine; sure enough this was a Persephone edition in excellent condition. I’ve never come across a Persephone in any second hand store before now so of course I had to have it, even more so because it was by Dorothy Whipple, an author who comes highly recommended by Ali at HeavenAli but whom I’ve never read. They Knew Mr Knight, Whipple’s second novel, is the story of a family who encounter and fall foul of a crooked financier.

After that moment of excitement I just had to celebrate with a visit to a coffee shop that just happens to be a bookcrossing zone.And they just happened to have Lewis Man by Peter May, an author I’ve heard about via Cleopatra at Cleopatralovesbooks. I took it home in the belief this was the first title in his crime fiction trilogy set on the remote Isle of Lewis in Scotland that features a former policeman who has returned to the island of his birth. Turns out I was wrong and The Lewis Man is book number 2. So now I have to hope the library can furnish me with book number 1 The Blackhouse. 

And finally, a few years ago I read Alex by Pierre LeMaitre which was a fast-paced, superbly written novel about a girl’s abduction. The beginning was so horrifying that I didn’t think I could continue reading but I did and it turned out to be a riveting story about revenge. So taken was I with LeMaitre that I planned to read more from him so when his publishers ran a giveaway recently of course I could not resist. Which is how I come to be the new owner of his latest novel Three Days and  Life which will be published in July. It begins in  1999, in a small provincial town of Beauval, France, where a twelve-year-old boy called Antoine Courtin accidentally kills a young neighbor girl in the woods near his home. He conceals the body and to his relief- is never suspected of any connection to her disappearance.  More than a decade later Antoine, now a doctor, moves back to Beauval and discovers there was a witness to his crime, a person who has the power to destroy his life. Based on what I experienced with Alex, I’m sure this is going to be a dramatic psychological thriller.

And now I have to pull in those reins again otherwise all the progress I’ve made on reading through my personal library will be undone.

 

 

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien #historicalfiction

shadowqueenThere’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth,  the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first  female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.

This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.

She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.

You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.

Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:

I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.

A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.

The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck.  She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.

It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us  immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.

This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.

Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.

I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.

 

Footnotes

The BookThe Shadow Queen  was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The author:  Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.

 

The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths #fictionWales

primrosepathThe Primrose Path is an atmospheric thriller based on the premise that no matter how fast or far you run, you can never escape the past.

At the age of 19, Sarah D’Villez was abducted during a visit to some riding stables and held prisoner for days. She managed to escape though her attacker’s wife was murdered in the course of her flight. For years, Sarah re-lived the anguish of her ordeal and the media attention it generated. The trauma alienated her from her friends and mother and ultimately caused the breakdown of her marriage and separation from her child.  Now in her 30s she learns that John Blundell, her abductor, is about to be released from prison. She has to escape before he, or the press, catch up with her. So she dyes her hair, changes her name to Rachel and moves to a converted barn in rural Wales to start a new life,  telling no-one not even her mother about her whereabouts.

Even in such an isolated location she doesn’t feel completely safe. It’s not only the fear that someone might discover her secret. One of her nearest neighbours is Idris, a creepy, filthy truck driver who keeps turning up on her doorstep un-announced. Rachel is sure Idris is spying on her and is stealing her underwear. She’s afraid of what this brutish man could do to a woman living alone.

Rebecca Griffiths packs a lot into this book with several plot lines that appear unconnected but which gradually converge as the story progresses. We get Rachel’s flight to Wales and the tension created by her mother’s decision to hire a private investigator to track down her daughter. Added to that there is a mystery about the barn in which Rachel now lives. It once belonged to Idris’ family but no-one knows what happened to his young sister who just disappeared one day on a trip to the seaside. And for good measure, there is a serial killer on the loose who is preying on young women.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, Rachel of course is one of the key narrators but we also hear from her mother Jennifer and from Dai, a widower who has reason to loathe Idris. In between we get some chilling first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed, unidentified serial killer who watches for their next victim.

Rebecca Griffiths certainly has a talent for creating some obnoxious characters. Rachel’s mother is a really masterful portrait of an acerbic, cold woman whose armour is pierced when she makes a shocking discovery in her husband’s study. And then there is Idris, a socially isolated, dysfunctional man who doesn’t know the meaning of the term personal hygiene. So repugnant is he that everyone in the community finds it easy to believe he is capable of anything.

Overall, The Primrose Path is a cleverly-plotted novel. I’ve seen several comments from reviewers that it’s overly slow to get going but that wasn’t my reaction. We needed time to get to know the multiple characters and their relationships to each other. Once Rachel is firmly established in Wales the pace picks up  as we learn more about her former life. There are plenty of surprising twists and moments which challenge your assumptions. The clues to the denouement were there all along but I didn’t spot them so the ending was a surprise.  I won’t spoil this for other readers other than to say that its worth keeping in mind as you read The Primrose Path that this is a novel in which virtually everyone has a secret…

I did have a couple of issues with the book. One is that it felt repetitive at times –  we kept getting told for example that Idris’ home is a tip while Rachel’s new home is remote. I know Griffiths wanted to emphasise her vulnerability but I didn’t feel I needed to be hit over the head with that fact quite so much. The biggest issue however was the resolution of the serial killer sub-plot. Griffiths leads her readers down several garden paths about the identity of the killer and, to my delight, completely wrong-footed me ( I hate thrillers where the culprit is too evident.). However her solution felt too much of a cop-out because the culprit was barely present as a character in the novel so we never really understood their motivation for killing women they considered ‘slags’.

Overall however The Primrose Path is a well-structured tale that shows some deft handling of multiple plot lines and levels of tension.  It’s clear why this debut novel by Rebecca Griffiths has earned her many accolades in the UK with predictions that she is on the track to a highly successful career. She’s someone I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for in the future.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths was published by Sphere in 2016. The title is a phrase taken from Hamlet and has come to mean a course of action that seems easy and appropriate but can actually end in calamity.

About the author : Rebecca Griffiths grew up in rural mid-Wales.  She returned to live there after a successful business career in London, Dublin and Scotland. The Primrose Path is her debut novel.

Why I bought this book: I came across this while mooching around the bookshop last year and was drawn to the fact this was by an author from my homeland.

 

My reading life in 5 books

books buildWhat books are special to BookerTalk? My profile page mentions a few of my favourite authors but if you want to know which books have a special place in my heart, take a look at a guest post published today by Cathy at 746books. It’s part of her ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ series that has been running all year with some wonderful contributions and a tremendous variety of genres and authors.

It was incredibly tough to look back over 50 plus years as a reader and choose just a few books that were significant at different points in my life. I think I must have written at least ten versions of my list (even now I keep thinking of books I missed out) but I ended up with a selection that includes a play, two novels, a book of essays and a guide to writing:

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Collected Essays by George Orwell

Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse

The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott

Germinal: Emile Zola

To discover why I chose these particular texts and why they hold a special place in my heart, please read the original post on Cathy’s site – here is the link.

 

 

 

 

From slaps to battles in #6degrees

the slap #6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.

Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long atonementterm repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed.  I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.

Brideshead revisitedThe tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.

From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set birdsongagainst the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme.  Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?

Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.

OnTheBlackHillSo let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.

Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town Resistanceof Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared,  leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.

During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.

dragonsWelsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great  (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and  his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations.  It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.

And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.

 

Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith [Review]

diary-of-a-nobody

In an age where just about anyone attracting a modicum of ‘celebrity status’ feels compelled to tell the world about their life history, it’s a delight to come across a novel which parodies such pretensions. The Diary of a Nobody was written with the deliberate intent of mocking the diaries and memoirs that proliferated in the late 1880s. George Grossmith, an actor, and his artist brother Wheedon took the view that the British reading public had surely had enough of diaries written by people who were ‘Somebodies’ and it was high time attention was given to the ‘nobodies’ of this world.  As Charles Pooter (the central character) puts it

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ’Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.

In Charles Pooter we have a man who tries so hard to be a respectable member of the middle class but is foiled every time because of his inexhaustible ability to make a mess of a situation. So successful was this characterisation that it gave birth to two new adjectives: Pooterish and Pooteresque,  both indicating a person who takes themselves far too seriously, believing their importance or influence is far greater than it really is.

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of this  London clerk, his wife Carrie and their feckless son Willie (who insists on being called Lupin). When the Diary begins Charles and Carrie have just moved into a six-roomed house in the Holloway district of London. The new residence is meant to signify that the Pooters are on their way up the social ladder. Charles in fact has a keen sense of his own importance and sees this move as his entry into a more refined social circle. Over the course of 15 months he records the many small pleasures, modest social occasions and acquaintances that make up his life.

The summary of the day’s entry for April 19 gives a good flavour of the Diary:

A conversation with Mr Merton on Society. Mr and Mrs James of Sutton come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings [two close friends] are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected results.

A year later Pooter is complaining about another social occasion which did not go according to plan:

Trouble with a stylographic pen. We go to a Volunteer Ball where I am let in for an expensive supper. Grossly insulted by a cabman. An odd invitation to Southend.

The Diary is a litany of mishaps and misadventures. Every time Charles gets an opportunity he thinks will enable him to shine, he makes some kind of mistake which proves socially embarrassing. He manages to tear his trousers and smear coal dust over his shirt just before going out to the Lord Mayor’s party, then in his eagerness to show he can waltz he slips bringing both he and his wife to the floor.

He fares no better at home, constantly falling over the boot scraper outside the front door and getting stitched up by tradespeople who over-charge or fail to deliver the promised goods.  An episode in which he turns his hand to some home decor was probably my favourite. Enamoured with the red enamel paint he hears about at work he gets rather carried away, painting flower pots, wash-stands and chests of drawers. Then its the turn of the coal-scuttle and the bath to get the red paint treatment. Even though readers will guess what the outcome is, his discomfiture in the bath that night is still one of those laugh aloud moments:

… imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death and should be discovered later on looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell but I remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, pefectly red all over resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East End theatre.

In amongst the humour and the humdrum details of every day life, there are times when we see Charles Pooter in a way that evokes our sympathy. Despite his social aspirations this is a man who genuinely loves his family and is deeply concerned when his son loses his job and starts running around with an undesirable bunch of people. His sense of honour and integrity is severely put to the test by his so-called friends who regularly mock him while taking advantage of his hospitality.

Though more than 100 years old, it’s surprising how contemporary some of the pre-occupations of this novel feel. Don’t most parents even today worry their children are going off course and want to step in with a bit of course correction? Haven’t we all felt the frustrations when goods get delivered late or the order is incomplete? And I bet some of you at least will have been bamboozled by technical jargon when confronted by IT engineers or motor mechanics (or is that hust me?). Isn’t there a touch of Mr Pooter in all of us?

Footnotes

About the Book: Initially Charles Pooter’s exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine between 1888 and 89. It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics – The Athenaeum declared that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”.

About the authors: The Diary of a Nobody is the sole output of  the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text.

Why I read this book: I included this in my Classics Club list  because of the extrordinary literary influence it has exerted through the decades. Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones’ Diary are just two of the works that owe a debt to the Wheedon brothers, emulating their tone and format to huge commercial success. Without The Diary of a Nobody I wonder whether we would have ever seen the spoof diaries in Private Eye that parody the Prime Minister of the day (including the unforgettable St Albion Parish News from ‘Tony Blair’ and the current  St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) from Theresa May. 

 

 

Diary comic novel,

Snapshot May 2017

Hello to May. Before I get into the snapshot of my reading life on the first of this month I wanted to share with you some wonderful news. You’ll have seen from a post t the start of this year that I’ve been dealing with a serious health issue. It’s almost  a year now since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the treadmill of treatment. First chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, followed by liver surgery in January and then just five weeks ago further surgery. Going for the post-op check up today I expected the consultant to tell me that I’d need to do yet more chemotherapy but to my surprise – delight I should say – he not only told me that it wasn’t necessary but the recent tests have shown a full recovery and no sign anywhere of malignant cells. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. Since this month also sees a landmark birthday for me, I am in celebration mode. I might even be able to risk a small glass of wine (my first drop of alcohol since January 26).

Reading

On May 1 itself I was nearing the end of  The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths, a book I bought late in 2016 as part of my intention to read more work by authors from Wales. It’s her debut novel and has attracted a lot of praise with good reviews in a number of the more popular UK newspapers. My edition includes a lot of quote from bloggers too – from CrimeFictionLover who called it a “cracking debut from an author who shows great promise” and  Bibliophoenix who thought it “disturbing, mysterious and quite unpredictable.”  I wouldn’t call it ‘cracking’ but I was certainly impressed by Griffiths’ ability to manage multiple narrative threads and bring them to an unexpected ending.

Most of the books I read in April I really enjoyed with the star being The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Unfortunately I also encountered a book which I could not finish – Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was one of the first books I bought when I decided about four years ago it was time to expand my reading to countries outside of UK/USA. It started off well with the introduction to the two main characters – one is a concierge of an apartment building who secretly conceals her intellectual interests in books, films, philosophy and the other is the daughter of a wealthy family in the building who decides to kill herself because of all the hypocrises she sees in the world. The novelty of Barbery’s alternating narrators soon wore off – by the time I got to page 100 I was finding it tedious. So off its gone to the charity shop.

State of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. It’s not a book ban as such – I know that if I really, really wanted a particular book I would just go and buy it or borrow from the library. So far I’ve been restrained – I haven’t bought anything and have just two books on loan from the library (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and one about the Wars of the Roses.). Having done a little bit of a clear out of books I realised I would never read my level of ‘owned but unread’ books is now down to 280.

Wishing for…

I’ve been rather restrained with my wishlist on Goodreads. In March I added Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout which is a collection of linked stories about one community and also Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera which has been described as one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. I haven’t done brilliantly with Spanish authors until now so I hope that description proves to be true. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Shadow Panel for the International Man Booker Prize (you can see all their reviews of the shortlisted novels here). The one calling to me most is The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which is about a family living on a small Norwegian island.

On the reading horizon…

After my recent post about reading books that are out of your comfort zone, I’m ready to take the plunge into my own dark zone of sci-fi. Armed with a list of recommendations from bloggers in response to my question ‘where do I begin’ I went off to the library only to find that most of these titles were not available. Some of them are buried in the basement of the county library (a place where it seems the library staff are not keen to visit) so I shall have to wait for Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series and also for anything by William Gibson to come back from the deep. In the meantime I shall give Station Eleven a go.

There are a few other titles jostling for attention however which might squeak in before Station Eleven. Do I go for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki? Or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question? Or All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. As always, when the moment comes to take a book from the shelf, it will invariably be none of these – something else will have taken my fancy.

 

%d bloggers like this: