Reading Snapshot October 2016

autumn-leaves-in-sun3I can pretend no longer. The tinges of red on bushes in my garden and the rate at which our copper beech is shedding leaves tells me that summer is over. Time for the season of mists and intermittent sunshine.

I know many readers who change their reading habits once the seasons evolve and start to think of slightly darker, or more cosy books once the nights begin drawing in. I don’t consciously do that – as far as I can tell I read pretty much the same things all year round. It’s rather a coincidence therefore that the two books I have on the go at the start of October are rather dark.

Reading Currently

One is the latest in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny that I’m reviewing for NetGalley. Penny has found a clever way of dealing with the problem that two books earlier she made her protagonist retire from his job as head of homicide for the Quebec region after a dramatic showdown with the corruptive elements in the force.  The last novel saw him retire to the quiet community of Three Pines with this wife, but even then he found a crime to solve. But of course she can’t go on creating crimes in Three Pines given it is such a small community. The latest novel A Great Reckoning sees him take up a new role at the helm of the police training academy, determined on a root and branch review and a cull of the less desirable influences which of course sets him firmly on course to antagonise his colleagues. One of them get murdered and Gamache is in the frame as a potential murder. As with all of Penny’s novels we get a reasonably good plot but a lot of thoughtful commentary about the state of the world as seen by Gamache.

It’s all rather different from my second novel which is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – the first in his trilogy. I read it a few years ago and wasn’t all that enamoured with it – it features a talking bear and some fantastical creatures called daemons that you carry with you as a reflection of your soul. Reading it a second time for my  study module on children’s literature I can appreciate more the way Pullman plays with the typical elements of fantasy and quest fiction, of mythology and Paradise Lost to create a tale of other worlds that asks searching questions about religion and the role of the Church. Still wish he hadn’t included  talking bears though….

Just Finished

I do seem to be on a run of darker material since I only just finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeline Thien. It’s shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It covers a vast swathe of Chinese history from the era of Mao and the devastation he brought to the nation not to mention the untold number of deaths, right up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some of the history is familiar from my reading of Wild Swans (one of my favourite non fiction books) but Thien looks at this through the lens of three highly respected and talented musicians and how political upheaval affects their ability to learn, play and enjoy music. It’s an ambitious novel and really tough to review for Shiny New Books for their upcoming edition.

What’s next?

A lot of other children’s novels await my attention in coming months. Next in order will be Treasure Island which I love and Little Women which I loathe…. In between I hope to get to some of the books I mentioned in a recent post about books on the Autumn reading plan but like most of my plans its likely to go astray. German literature month beckons as does the 1947 club and then there’s the Classics Club prize which I have sadly neglected this year and the Booker project and my world literature project. Plenty to occupy me for sure.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: A book to divide a nation

old-devilsIt was a surprise to many when Kinglsey Amis won the Booker Prize in 1986 for The Old Devils for this was an author who, according to the wisdom of the masses, was long past his prime. I don’t know what the reaction was in Wales but I suspect the commentary there may have concentrated on his portrayal of the country than the quality of his writing. My countrymen do tend to get a bit huffy about how our nation is represented. But then we are known for our hot tempers (not for nothing is our national symbol a fire breathing dragon) and we do tend to take offence at implied slights to our national pride….

What in The Old Devils would have got the Welsh feathers ruffled? This is a tale about a bunch of old university mates who are mostly retired and, having been regular drinkers in the past, naturally gravitate to a pub called The Bible to while away the hours chewing the fat and carping about anything and everything. The drinking seems to begin well before lunch (not too long after breakfast in fact) and lasts as long as they can keep going into the night.  Not to be outdone, their wives gather in one or other’s homes to neck down a few bottles of vino.

Your average Celt wouldn’t turn a hair about heavy drinking, gossipy characters. They’re the kind of people who can be spied propping up the bar in many a grimy establishment throughout Wales. What would really get them hot under the collar however is how Amis tackles a theme about Welsh identity.

This largely centres on the character of Alun Weaver. He prefers this spelling of his first name to the more Anglicised ‘Alan’ since it’s an easy way to emphasis his Welsh credentials. He’s the only one of the old gang to leave Wales, making a career for himself in London as a writer and an expert on a poet called Brydan (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). But now after a 30 year absence he’s announced his return to his old stamping ground in South Wales intending to set up home with his wife. Cue lots of anxiety from those wives of the Old Devils who indulged in affairs with him and are either hoping for  a re-run or mortified with embarrassment about meeting him again.

Alun is what is often labelled as a “professional Welshman”, (or as one of his friends describes him “an up-market media Welshman”) the kind of person who gets trotted out whenever the BBC or its ilk need someone to comment on Welsh culture and society.  They don’t actually live in the country but feel compelled at every opportunity to parade their Welshness and love of ‘the old country’. Amis makes him a figure of ridicule, an ageing lothario with questionable literary skills, who essentially wants Wales to remain in some kind of time warp.

That was the whole point, to stress continuity, to set one’s face against anything that could be called modernism and to show that the old subject, life in the local villages, in the peculiar South-Wales amalgam of town and country, had never gone away…

The Old Devils probably wouldn't appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The Old Devils probably wouldn’t appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The last thing the local soaks want is to bottle Wales in aspic; they want change but they recognise a balance needs to be struck. A balance between the kind of Anglicised ubiquity which means  “Everywhere new here is the same as new things in England, whether it’s the university or the restaurants or the supermarkets or what you buy there. … Is there anything in here to tell you you’re in Wales?”  and the Disneyfication that Alun would seem favour in his books. One of the braver Devils  confronts him head on, accusing him of ruining Wales.

Turning it into a charade, an act, a place full of leeks and laver-bread and chapels and wonderful old characters who speak their own highly idiosyncratic and often curiously erudite kind of language.

Such carping doesn’t disguise the fact that between these men there does exist a close bond that approaches love and affection. Nor does Amis’s satire come without a degree of affection and understanding for these characters. He makes us laugh but there is a poignancy for these guys whose brains don’t want to acknowledge their best days are over though their bodies tell them otherwise. There are some wonderful cameos of the gang dealing with the infirmities that come with age including the difficulties of getting dressed when an expanding girth gets in the way of something as simple as putting on a pair of socks.

At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noted that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails. … The socks went on in the bathroom with the aid of a particular low table, height being critical. Heel on table, sock completely on as far as heel, toes on table, sock round heel and up. …. Pants on in the bedroom, heel and toe like the socks but at floor level, spot of talc around the scrotum, then trousers two mornings out of every three or so. On the third or so morning he would find chocolate, cream, jam or some combination from his bedtime snack smeared over the pair in use and he would have to return to the bathroom specifically to its mirror for guidance in fixing the braces on the front of the fresh trousers, an area which needless to say had been well out of his direct view these many years.

It’s passages like this that show clearly how insult and ridicule can be transformed into high comic art. and how Amis,  is a master of that art. Even if there is a segment of the population that takes umbrage at his depiction of Wales, they surely have to acknowledge that with The Old Devils, there is clearly old life in that old devil Amis.

Without doubt one of the most enjoyable of the Booker prize winners I’ve read. And no, you don’t even need to be born in Wales to appreciate its humour.

Footnotes

Author: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

Published: 1986  by Hutchinson. Now available as a Vintage Classic imprint

Length: 384 pages

My copy: A rather battered orange coloured Penguin version that in fact belongs to my husband and has stayed with us through more than one house move because he loves it so much.

Why I read this: This links to my Booker prize project so I was always going to read it but was given a nudge by the 20booksofsummer challenge.

Books On My Autumn TBR List

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday looks to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and asks what we’ll be reading this Autumn from our TBR. Making a list of what I’m going to read is always tricky for me since I don’t like planning too far ahead knowing that I am highly unlikely to stick to the list. I prefer the serendipitous approach where I can. Plus  I have (foolishly??) embarked on a university module about children’s literature so will need to devote some reading time to those texts. But in the interests of playing along with the game here’s a list of books that might have a chance of being read in the next few months. I’ve gone for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime, books in translation and classics.

  1. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I’ll be reading this as part of my Booker prize project. It won in 1988 (he went on to win the Booker again in 200finklerquestion1 with True History of the Kelly Gang. This will be my first experience of reading Carey’s work but so many people have said this is a great book that I will begin with high
    expectations.
  2. Another from my Booker list is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won in 2001. I know from various comments on this blog that it’s not to everyone’s taste but I dipped into it a few weeks ago just to get a feel for the style and didnt have an issue with what is generically labelled ‘Jewish humour’.
  3. An Elergy For Easterly by Patina Gappah: This is a collection of short stories that was on my #20booksofsummer list but I never got to finish
  4. Frog by Mo Yan. My knowledge of authors from China is pitiful so this is an attempt to remedy the situation,spurred on by the deeply moving experience of reading about the Cultural Revolution last week via Madeleine Thien’s knock out Man Booker 2016 shortlisted title Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Mo Yan won the Nobel literature prize in 2012. Frog,  first published in Chinese in 2009 is ostensibly the life story of the author’s aunt, a midwife, told through a series of letters to a celebrated but unidentified Japanese writer. It covers a broader period than Thien’s novel because it goes back to the Japanese occupation of China, then moves ahead to the victory of the Communist party in 1949, the hunger and violent political upheavals of the first 30 years of communist rule and, finally, the lurch to a peculiarly rampant form of state-directed capitalism. It’s going to be powerful I suspect.
  5. good-womenContinuing on the theme of China, this seems like a good time to finally get around to reading The Good Women of China  by Xue Xinran. She is a British-Chinese journalist currently living London and writing for The GuardianThe Good Women of China is primarily composed of interviews Xinran conducted during her time as a radio broadcaster in China in the 1980s. However, she also details some of her own experiences as a woman in China.
  6. English Music by Peter Ackroyd. This has been on my shelf since 2011.It was recommended when I asked for suggestions of books that would typify England. I ended up reading a different recommendation – Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea   but now think it could be time to revisit Mr Ackroyd.
  7. Candide by Voltaire. This is book number 4 on my woefully neglected list of books for the Classics Club challenge. With less than a year to go I find I’ve read 28 out of the targeted 50 so time to put a spurt on.
  8. Ditto for the Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith which is on the list at number 5 and I did actually start reading it about a year ago but other things intervened. I don’t normally go for overt humour in novels but this sounded wry rather than laugh out loud.
  9. And now it’s time for some crime. Those misty/rainy days are perfect excuses for insulting in something a little dark but not too bloodthirsty. The British Crime Classics imprint sounds the perfect solution to me and thanks to the generosity of Ali at I am the possessor of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts which is set deep in the English countryside. You can see Ali’s review here and why I’m keen to read this.
  10. 1947 club: This is an initiative by Karen at Kaggsy’s Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book which will run October 10-15. It’s only a few weeks ahead but I still don’t know what I am going to read. Maybe Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which is based on the true story of a working class husband and wife who, acting alone, became part of the German Resistance. .More on the 1947 club is here

Disclaimers:

The order in which these books appear in my list has no significance at all. I reserve the right to read in whatever sequence I want ….

I equally reserve the right to read only some of them or indeed none of them if something else comes along that exerts a greater pull.🙂

Finding Time to Read

1A few months ago The Readers podcast discussed how avid readers could carve out even more of their day to indulge in their favourite activity. You can listen to the discussion here.

It’s something I’ve been wrestling with recently when faced with the realisation that a)my personal library (sometimes known as the TBR) is ever increasing and b) I keep hearing of books I really want to read, whether new issues or ones that have been around for decades, or maybe centuries.

Andy Miller solved the issue by setting himself a goal of reading 50 pages a day when he embarked on his Year of Reading Dangerously (click to link to see my review). For him, that meant sometimes spurious visits to the Post Office so he could stand in the long queue and read…. Ingenious but I reckon Mr BookerTalk would get suspicious about my sudden need for stationery and postage stamps in a world of electronic communication.  Seeing a page goal is of course one way to rattle through books but if feels a bit like a chore to me. I did it a few times when I needed to read a book by a certain date for the book club discussion – I ended up dividing the total page count by the number of days to get to my daily tally. The freaked when I saw the result. It meant all the time I was reading I was checking my progress and re-calculating my score. Not how the reading experience should feel.

Rather more appealing is the approach used by Patrick Ness who decided that he wanted to better appreciate short stories so set himself a task of reading one before breakfast every day. As a warm up for the day ahead that is rather more enticing than reading the daily newspaper litany of calamity, intrigue or vacuous celebrity gossip. And its something that could easily be adapted to say reading one chapter of a book rather than a short story. So appealing – but have I done it? Er, no….

Today I noticed that Goodreads has an article which lists strategies to find more time for reading  adopted by people who responded to a social media poll.

Some of them will be very familiar to you:

  • commute to work by public transport instead of driving
  • if you have to drive, then use audio books
  • switch your habit of watching tv at night and read instead (I know a lot of you have done that)
  • retire from work (that sounds good but in reality other things have a habit of taking over what you think is spare time)
  • schedule ‘me’ time which you use to curl up with a book

One that I liked the sound of though was this

“Throughout the day I play a little game. I read a chapter (just one) and then I get up and clean something. Example: Go and sweep the kitchen floor. Then read a chapter. Then fold a load of clothes and put them away. Then go read another chapter. I can do this all day. It works great for me!” (Shannon Strickland-Brown)

It’s the perfect ‘carrot’ in the ‘carrot and stick’ approach except with this there is no stick unless you consider publishers to whom you have promised reviews, the stick. The beauty is that it lends itself to all kinds of household chores or tasks I don’t want to do. Filling the car up with petrol (always a distress purchase for me), or cleaning the cooker (yuk), weeding the flower bed or emptying the dishwasher. Of course there is the temptation to make those jobs so small that you end up spending more time reading than doing them!!. Is it acceptable to read a chapter every three garments I iron I wonder or do I have to get through the whole basket before I feel I’ve earned the right to pick up the book?

It has the makings of a good swaps game doesn’t it?

30 minutes ironing = 30 minutes reading

two garments ironed = 15 minutes reading

one basket of ironing =a whole morning reading

It will undoubtedly mean the chores take longer to finish but just think of the pleasure you’ve earned.

Do any of those strategies appeal to you? Anyone fancy playing the ironing swap game or are you too busy already reading??

 

 

#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

NW by Zadie Smith: portrait of a divided city

northwestdivide

Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit.  They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.

Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.

Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.

The paths they take to  escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.

The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background  whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.

So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.

It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story  in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.

At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.

The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds

Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.

 

Footnotes

Author: NW by Zadie Smith

Published: 2013 by Penguin

Length: 294 pages

My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.

Favourite Book Audio Programmes

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Tuesday topic looks at the world of audio. We’ve moved a long way forward in delivering books and other materials in formats other than print or digital. Remember when if you wanted to listen to music or a book on audio you had just the one option of cassette tapes? They were light so easily portable but guaranteed to jam at the most inappropriate moment. To reduce this involved getting a pencil, sticking it into the one wheel while  and trying to unravel the crinkled tape while simultaneously holding the other  wheel stationery. jIt also includes podcasts. CDs have no such issues except they do skip and to listen to a whole book requires multiple changes of discs that are not that convenient to carry around in the gym or on a walk. Podcasts have been my saviour on many a long journey so here’s a  very short list of ones I listen to regularly or find useful resources.

  1. The Readers – a book based banter podcast with Simon and Thomas. Most of you already know this and follow it. It’s a good blend of recommendations on what’s about to be published or just published, general reading topics like how to find more time to read or what to take on your holidays plus you get insight in the reading habits of the two hosts. Plenty of good humoured banter and misunderstandings between the British and American way of life to keep you amused. Be warned though you are likely to end up with an even longer wish list after listening to their recommendations.
  2. Guardian podcast: A Good Read. This is a regular program where two guests and the host select a book that they they rate highly and argue why other people should read it. Each guest describe they book, why they enjoy it and then they have a discussion about its merits. It was through one of these episodes that I was encouraged to read Cannery Row by Steinbeck which I had somehow thought would be rather dreary but proved hilarious at times.
  3. Backlisted podcast: This is a relatively new find for me but I’m enjoying what I’ve heard so far. It’s issued every two weeks and is based on the idea that the simple two hosts choose an old book they think everyone should read. One of the hosts is Andy Miller who wrote The Year of Reading Dangerously in which he talks about how he re-ignited his passion for reading. Expect to hear a fair amount of blokish chit chat – the podcast seems to be recorded around a kitchen table where the hosts do a general catch up with their invited guest for the episode. In one of the first episodes I heard which was about The Riddle of the Sands, a good 30 minutes was taken up with discussions about gin and what each person in the room was reading (and why). When it gets into the meat of the broadcast though, which is the book in question, expect to hear some good quality insight. The podcast is available via SoundCloud or ITunes.
  4. ITunes: A wealth of material here including recordings of entire books. Librivox is one of the main contributors here – these are recorded by volunteers so the quality is extremely variable. I’ve had to give up on a few because I really didn’t like the narrator’s voice but that’s just my taste. My favourites have been some old time radio programs with Adventures of Inspector Maigret by George Simenon and Agatha Christie. It takes a bit of searching to get to them but the reward is worth it.
  5. ITunes University: many leading universities around the world make some of their lecture programmes available via ITunes – to find them go to ITunes and then select ITunes U. The quality can vary enormously – bear in mind that sometimes the lecture itself is recorded as it’s delivered in the lecture room so you may find you can’t pick up the discussion or questions from students. But that’s a minor inconvenience for the value of often feeling you are in the room at some of these prestigious academic centres. A few interesting ones I’ve come across that are good quality are
    1. Oxford University: George Eliot – an introduction to her major works and her intellectual interests.
    2. Open University: good introduction short podcasts on some of their modules. Explore Wordsworth or European Romanticism or creative writing.
    3. Cambridge University: Literary criticism key terms. A great resource for people who want to know what the ‘sublime’ or the ‘pastoral’ means in literature for example.
    4. My current listening is from La Trobe university in Australia which has two courses on children’s literature – one on genres looks at the history of picture books and fairy tales and another takes a post colonial approach. You’ll get used to the accent after a while.

As a bonus here (just to make it up to a list of 10!) is a non book audio program which is a must listen for me:  The Archers podcast. For those of you in the UK this will be a familiar program. But for non UK residents it will come as a bit of a surprise that this is a  5 day a week, 13 minute BBC radio soap opera set in a fictional farming community in the heart of England. Most of the characters are farmers or connected to the land in some way but we also have the village pub, the tea room, a stately home and a grand country hotel to give variety. It’s long evolved from its roots in the 1950s when it was created as a way to give farmers tips on how to increase production to help a country still dealing with food rationing. Today it’s billed as a “Contemporary drama in a rural setting’ which means yes you still get farming issues but there’s also adultery, teenage angst, crime,  road building and currently, the hottest topic of all, marital abuse.

Topping up my library

Some of the smaller libraries in my area are being converted to ‘community libraries’ which means that local people have to fund them. It’s a trend that’s happening all over the UK sadly. It’s meant to be a way of helping the local authorities to meet their budget targets but in effect it means that I, as a local contributor to their funds, end up paying twice. Once through what in the UK we call council tax (a yearly payment to fund local services, the level of which is determined by the size of your home) and then through local fundraising. The library in my village is one of those targeted to be a community library and despite significant opposition from local residents and two court cases, it’s likely to be in place within a month.

It’s going to be a big challenge to get the money needed for even basic things like heating and lighting of the libraries. In the interests of seeing what other community libraries are doing to raise funds, I toddled off to a book sale run by one of them yesterday. All in the interests of market research you understand – I had no intention of buying anything🙂

Well of course you all know what happens in these events. It was inevitable I came away with something. It was all in a good cause anyway – the new library gets a much needed boost to its coffers and I get to enrich my private library. A win-win…  Here’s what I bought.

book-purchases

I’ve never read anything by George Meredith so this rather pristine copy of The Egoist called to me as a way of enhancing my knowledge of Victorian writers.  Looking at the back cover I see it’s considered “the most dazzlingly intellectual of all his novels” in which he turns the spotlight on the pretentiousness of a powerful social class. Virginia Woolf rated him highly apparently.  Maybe the fact that this copy looks as if its hardly been opened tells me that the previous owner was not of a mind with dear Virginia.

Elizabeth von Arnim is someone whose name has cropped up recently as a result of HeavenAli’s review of her novel Love which triggered many comments recommending another of her works – The Enchanted April. The copy I snaffled is a Virago modern classic, number 222, though sadly not in the green livery of other Viragos I have on my shelf. I guess I have to live with the fact that this new purchase spoils the colour scheme of my bookshelf.

Molly Keane is a newish discovery for me though not for people who are avid Virago readers. This summer I read Devoted Ladies which she wrote under her other pen name of M.J. Farrell and while not wowed by it, I enjoyed it enough to want to try her again. Good Behaviour is the first novel published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

What can I say about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours other than I don’t know why its taken me so long to get a copy. The film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is superb but I’m told by those who know such things, that the book itself is even better.

How could I resist anything by Anita Brookner, especially a hardback in such good condition as A Private View. Its focus is George Bland, a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. Into his rather lacklustre life storms Katy, a young squatter who takes up residence in a flat opposite. She’s abrasive, self-assured and into crystal therapy and other New Agey kinds of things. She awakens some strange sensations in George.

And finally, one I needed to buy to help me reach the finishing line in my Booker Prize project. Vernon God Little by D. C Pierre caused a hoopla when it won the Booker in 2003 because it contains a high proportion of profanities and because the author is a former drug addict. Neither of those are showstoppers for me – if the profanities are an integral part of the story and how it needs to be told I can live with that, its the gratuitous use by authors who think they are being ‘hip’ that irritates me. As for the author’s background, I don’t see how that has a bearing on whether he is a good writer.  Will Vernon Good Little be worth reading? Only time will tell..

Given the low prices I think I was remarkably restrained with this little collection. Have you read any of these or plan to in the future?

All That Man Is by David Szalay: #ManBooker 2016 shortlisted

DavidSzalayNine men. Separated by time, place and attitude but all at a critical turning point in their lives. Decisions they make now – or in some cases fail to make – will have long lasting consequences. Such is the premise of All That Man Is by David Szalay where each of the nine sections of the book focuses on a different individual and a different stage of their lives.

It begins with 17-year-old Simon who is on holiday, criss-crossing Europe with his friend and ticking off places of culture before beginning his university course. Being rather earnest he has no idea how to interact with girls and no clue that the married woman who offers them a room is also offering to initiate him into the mysteries of sex.  Off he goes to bed (alone) with his copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors leaving his friend to take advantage of the opportunity.

Simon’s 73-year-old great grandfather is the final character in the book. He’s a retired government mandarin holed up in his holiday home in Italy to aid his recovery from an operation. Alone he contemplates  “the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying.” and that the “only purpose in life now, it seems, is to stave off physical decay and death for as long as possible”  Not surprisingly he feels depressed at the diminishment of his abilities and a recognition that he and his wife are as strangers with separate lives.

In between these two portraits we encounter a Danish tabloid journalist faced with an ethical dilemma when he learns of a story that could mean the end of his friend’s political ambitions. There’s also a lonely Russian oligarch who contemplates suicide when his fortune disappears because of an ill-judged court case; a bodyguard who falls for the woman he is meant to protect on her nightly visits to hotels to entertain rich men; a lazy Belgian whose holiday in Cyrprus is enlivened by a convivial daughter and mother and a mediaeval academic dismayed when his Cypriot girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, While the stories all relate to England in some way, none of them are actually in the place of their birth when we meet them. All appear to be in transit of some kind.

The emotional pull of these stories is varied with according to the detail with with Szalay portrays the  internal lives of his men. The character of the Russian billionaire Aleksandr is particularly well done – this is a man who went from an existence as a modest figure in the Soviet machine to the world’s number one iron-ore magnate. Now he can’t even afford to pay for dinner for his financial advisor and when asked what hobbies he will pursue now the bubble of his business empire has burst, all he can recall is that his Who’s Who entry lists his interests as ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. For all this man’s wealth and influence in the past we can’t help feeling just a tad sorry for him when, in search of company, he resorts to muscling in on his bodyguard’s microwaved rogan josh.

Over and over we witness these men questioning the purpose of their lives and what happens to them next. The answer often seems to be a bleak one. Billionaire Aleksandr is miserable because he thinks he has lost the meaning of life, James, a property developer hoping to make his next deal the big one, feels he can already see all the way to the end of his life; ‘he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable.” For the medievalist the ideal scenario would be that everything just stays the same; one in which he continues to present and publish his research on the finer points of spoken dialect in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and enjoys weekends with his girlfriend in some of Europe’s finest cities. Ideally he would prefer to be in a distant time, immersing himself in the world of Chaucer’s contemporaries and maybe even a cloistered life. What he doesn’t bargain on is finding that his girlfriend is pregnant and reluctant to fall in line with his preference for an abortion. The tense relationship between this two played out over the course of a few days in quiet country hostelries and cathedral naves is finely tuned and multilayered.

For all the glittering highspots however, this is a book that never really came together for me. The stories felt disparate and there was no overarching cohesive theme. At the end of it I still wasnt clear what point  Szalay was trying to make and what view of the world he wanted to convey other than life is miserable. I think we could have got to that conclusion without having to read 400 pages.

Minus a strong theme that glues these stories into an insightful view of the state of man in the 21st century,  they remained just that – stories. Not a novel. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that a number of them were had been published in Granta magazine – at some point  Szalay must have decided to wrap these into a book. The Man Booker prize judges may have been convinced that the result constituted ‘a novel’ otherwise they wouldn’t have shortlisted it for the 2016 award but I’m not.

Footnotes

Author: All That Man Is by David Szalay

Published: 2016 by Jonathan Cape

Length:448 pages

My copy: I received an electronic copy of this from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know

The Readers’ Room

Mookes and Gripes

 

#6Degrees: From a locked room to the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity

flowersWe begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain #6Degrees with a 1979 novel that was a best-seller:  Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews, a chilling story of four children who, on the death of their father, are hidden in an attic room for years so their mother can get her hands on a legacy. Five further novels were published that feature the same group of children though none had the same level of commercial success as Flowers in the Attic. I remember reading this in the period between finishing my finals exams in university and the results. “Everyone” was reading it that summer. Though it was an antidote to all the heavy literary works I’d had to read for the past three years, I didn’t rate it much. I wasn’t at that stage in my reading life where I was comfortable with abandoning books that were just not hitting the mark but this novel definitely falls into the category of Books That Wasted my Time. They were time wasters because they distracted me from far more interesting reading,

devilEqually time wasting was a series of novels by Dennis Wheatley which I devoured during my mid teens. Quite why I was so enthralled by these stories of black magic written in the 1930s I have no idea. Maybe it was just part of the typical teenage rite of passage where everything dark seems appealing (I recall dressing in black a lot at that stage). The one I recall most was The Devil Rides Out which I think was the first in the series. I won’t bore you with the plot – every book in the series had pretty much the same formula which involved a group of people who are called upon to fight  against the forces of supernatural powers. There was a lot of stuff about the protective power of pentangles as far as I recall.

catcher-1From around the same period comes another book I wish I hadn’t bothered to read: Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. It was required reading amongst my contemporaries in school and probably its themes of teenage angst and alienation resonated with many of them but it left me cold. I realise in saying this that I am bucking accepted wisdom that this is ‘a great novel’ – it does after all feature on many lists of ‘novels you must read.’  But I couldnt get excited about the disjointed form of the narrative and really couldn’t have cared two hoots about Holden Caulfield and his antics in New York hotels.

gatsbyNor did I care about another ‘classic’: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m treading on even more dangerous ground by classing this as a ‘time-wasted’ novel; it is after all considered one of the greatest American novels of all time. I did try to like it, reading it more than once. But though I enjoyed the period detail – all those lavish Long Island parties – I found Daisy Buchanan rather foolish and Jay Gatsby pathetic.  I’ve heard several times how ironic this book is in its critique of the American Dream but that was lost on my because I found the novels so SLOW….

 

labyrinth-1At least The Great Gatsby was well written which is more than can be said for the next time waster on my list: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Yet another ‘popular’ novel which friends kept pressing me to read. Published in 2005 this is an archaeological mystery English-language novel set both in the Middle Ages and present-day France. It was published in 2005. It divides into two main storylines that follow two protagonists from different time periods who we later discover are related. Ultimately this is a story about the quest for the Holy Grail. I enjoyed some of the historical detail especially the sections set in Carcassonne which I have visited, but this was the novel that demonstrated to me that a) I have too high a level of scepticism to enjoy books which involve secret symbols and codes and b) my friends reading interests do not coincide with mine.

There are not as many time wasting novels these days because I have weened myself off the feeling that once I’ve started reading something I need to finish it, even if I don’t like the book. But now and again a time waster creeps through.  Top of the list was one of the first novels I was sent for review. Today I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages but as a new blogger I felt honour bound to review books I got sent for free. Will the Real William Shakespeare please Step Forward was one such book. It is a book so poorly conceived and badly written that should never have seen the light of day. To say any more would be to waste yet more time however and there are better ways I can think of to spend the next few minutes than telling you about a book that should be avoided.

So there you have it; a chain that takes us from a locked room mystery in the USA to a literary quest set in the heart of England.

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