Category Archives: Bookends

Snapshot February 2018

Throughout 2017 I was making a note on the first day of the month of what I was reading and the level of what I call my personal library (otherwise known as the TBR mountain). I forgot to do this in January but here’s how things stood on February 1, 2018.

Just read

I limped my way through Muriel Spark’s The Comforters which was her first published novel. Such a disappointment after the other two novels I’d read by her: Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means.

Currently reading

When I complained recently that I’d hit a reading slump there were many bloggers coming forward with ideas of how to get the enthusiasm back. Melanie at Grab the Labels recommended: “return to a book or genre you deeply enjoyed before you started blogging” which advice I duly followed that very evening when I was looking for something new to begin reading. Two writers called out to me: Louise Penny whose Chief Inspector Gamache series I’ve loved so far and Emile Zola who I have sadly neglected this last year. Since I had recently read and listened to a few crime fiction novels I plumped for Monsieur Zola.

Melanie’s advice proved the perfect medicine. I am now happily ensconced in the world of a Parisienne department store in the nineteenth century via The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). It was one recommended by Lisa at ANZLitLovers to whom I shall be eternally grateful. Zola’s usual approach of conducting meticulous research before writing his novels is very much in evidence here. We get details about how every department works, from the cashiers to the sales people who work the floor, and some colourful details about the wonders to be purchased in this emporium. Department stores are nothing remarkable to us now but in the time Zola was writing, they were a revolution.

State of the personal library

Once again I find my numerical skills – or is my cataloguing skills – leave something to be desired. I thought I was doing a pretty good job last year of keeping track of all the owned but unread books in my home. I even had a spreadsheet with formulae designed so that I wouldn’t have to do the counting manually.

Well something clearly went wrong because instead of the downward trend I was congratulating myself upon all throug

h the year, I thought I ended 2017 with 225 books in my library. But somehow I have started 2018 with 245. Where that extra 15 books came from is a mystery. But no amount of double checking my spreadsheet or my formulae is giving me the answer. So I just have to accept that the number is 245.

But instead of going down, it’s already gone up from that…

Joanna Cannon

I won two books in a giveaway hosted by Kath who blogs at Nutpress. I might just be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I now have no excuses since Kath presented me with this plus Cannon’s latest novel Three Things About Elsie. 

 

 

I’ve also just taken delivery of the first book from my year-long subscription to the Asymptote Book Club. As part of this I’ll receive 12 books from around the world. January’s choice comes from the Indian sub-continent. Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was written between 1937 and 39 and looks at the conflict created between the need to cultivate the land for food and shelter and the need to preserve ancient forests and the traditional ways of life followed by its indigenous population.

My recent blue period also saw me indulge in a few purchases….

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. This is the selection for our next book club meeting in March

Since I was in the shop buying this I couldn’t help but have a mooch. So ended up buying a book I’ve seen attracting a lot of comment recently. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Walker is a professor and Director of the University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab so he knows a little about sleeping. In the book he explains the science about sleep and the consequences of too little sleep (clearly not something I should be reading on nights when I wake in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep again).

I’ve also picked up a copy of Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. This wasn’t an intentional acquisition but driving to the gym one day I noticed a little free library outside a house. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the UK. So of course I had to stop and have a peek at the contents …. a lot of the titles were thrillers or crime so not of interest but I saw the Bennett and knew I had to have this because most of this series which is set in the fictional Potteries towns of Stoke, are out of print. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…..

Hopefully by the time March 1 comes along and it’s time for another snapshot I will have actually read something from my growing collection….. But I won’t guarantee it.

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.

 

From African crime to games of English politics

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation. This month we begin in Botswana and the colourful detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (isn’t that a delicious name?) created by Alexander McCall Smith for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I did enjoy the book but never went on to read any of the later titles, nor watch the TV adaptation.

Crime and Africa provide me with my first link. There’s even a direct connection to book 2 in the chain because on the back of my copy of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is a comment from The Booklist  that the novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Wife

Actually Quartery’s novel is much darker than McCall Smith’s because in order to solve the  murder of a young female medical student, the investigating detective has to contend with a veil of secrecy about a practice which sees young girls offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. He finds important clues in the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate the cloth worn as wraps. Never having heard of these symbols I spent an enjoyable hour searching the web for images to explain their symbolism.

Lives of Others

The book in my next link also dealt with fashion accessories, but this time in the form of the jewellery worn by Indian brides. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee blends family saga and political turbulence in India during the second half of the 1960s. For light relief we get the squabbling members of the Ghosh family and their petty jealousies over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery. Looking at some images of young brides dressed in jewel-encrusted saris and double their body weight in gold, I remembered a visit to the royal jewellery collection at the Kremlin. What the Tsarinas had to wear for their coronation was so phenomenally heavy I couldn’t imagine how they managed to stand let alone walk.

The moonstone

A gift of jewellery from India is the catalyst for the plot of the next book in my chain. The large diamond in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was stolen by a British army officer and bequeathed to his niece Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. But on the night of her party it goes missing, believed stolen, an event which results in unhappiness, turmoil and ill fortune for her and the cousin who had hoped to be her husband.

jewel-in-crown

Jewels+India+turmoil= The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is the first part in his Raj Quartet collection about the dying days of the British in India and one of my favourite novels of all time. You can see why it has such a special place in my affection by reading the ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ post I wrote for Cathy at 746books.com (here’s the link if you’re interested.)

Katherine of Aragon

The link to book number 5 in my chain may be a bit obvious but I’m going there anyway. Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir is the first in her series about the women who wore the crown of a Queen of England by virtue of their marriage to King Henry VIII. Some managed to hold onto it for a few years, others lost their head over it which just proves the validity of that line from Shakespeare’s Henry 1V part 2 ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

In Alison Weir’s novel we first meet Katherine as a young and beautiful bride to be who has left Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. When he dies she marries his brother Henry and gets to be queen. Weir shows Katherine as more than a match for Henry’s intellect and energy but fate, and Henry’s roving eye, means she ends up divorced and a lonely figure banished to draughty manor houses well away from the court.

Wolf_Hall_cover

Katherine in her role as abandoned wife is a key figure in my final book. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel Wolf Hall  vividly recreates the life of the man the former queen holds responsible for her demise: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Cromwell is usually depicted in fiction as a shrewd, manipulative and cold figure who will go to any lengths in his master’s service. Mantel turns the traditional portrait on its head and shows Cromwell also as a loving husband and caring father. It’s an extraordinary work of historical fiction; lyrical yet tightly written, bursting with scenes and images that linger in the mind. Quite simply, the most inventive and thrilling historical novel I’ve ever read (apart of course from Mantel’s follow up Bring Up the Bodies).

And so we’ve reached the end of this chain. We’ve travelled from Africa via India to England, from crime and sensational fiction to historical fiction. Is there a connection between our starting book and the one with which I ended? Maybe it’s stretching a point to call the way Katherine was treated as a crime, but she was certainly an innocent victim in a political game.

If you want to play along with Six Degrees of Separation head to Books Are My Favourite and Best where Kate sets us off with a new book each month.  As always all the books I’ve included are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed.

Reading Bingo 2017

 

I’ve come across Reading Bingo several times over the years since I started this blog but never joined in because it seemed the idea was to commit to reading books that fitted the squares. I know from experience I am hopeless at reading to order. But this year I’ve seen a few bloggers  Marina at Finding Time to Write , Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks   and Susan at ALifeinBooks fill in the squares in retrospect first. Since I am too stuffed with Christmas pudding to move too far from the sofa it seemed a fun way to look back on the year and see how well I could match my books read with the 2017 bingo card. I’ve done way better than I expected with just two blank squares…

Book bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages –  weighing in with more than 600 pages is the Booker-award winning Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

A Forgotten Classic  – Gerard Reve’s The Evenings has been called a masterpiece of Dutch literature (I’m not convinced about that). Published in Amsterdam in 1946 it took 60 years before an English language version became available. 

A Book That Became a Movie –   You may not have heard of the book Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac  but I’m confident you’ve heard, and may have watched the version by Alfred Hitchcock.

A Book Published This Year – Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch brilliantly captures the atmosphere of Hull in UK at the time when the poet Phillip Larkin was head of its university library. 

Reservoir 13A Book with a Number in the Title – one of the best two novels I have read all year is Jon McGregor’s superbly constructed Reservoir 13, A contender for the Booker Prize in 2017, it sadly lost out in the final round. 

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty –   I don’t know Alys Conran’s exact age (it would have been impertinent to ask her when I met her at the Wales Book Awards) but I’m confident she is younger than I am so that’s enough for me to justify including her hear with her multi award-winning debut novel  Pigeon.

A Book with Non-Human Characters –  Limited options here since I dislike books of this kind. The nearest I can get is Strangers by Taichi Yamada which features ghosts. 

A Funny Book –   HagSeed by Margaret Atwood is a touching and imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some genuinely funny scenes set in a prison where the inmates become the cast members and have to decide what swear words will be acceptable.

A Book By A Female Author:  The most extraordinary novel I read all year was  The Vegetarian by the South Korean author Han Kang. It’s a short novel but deals with some big issues such as the clash between personal desire and society’s expectations.

A Book with a Mystery –   an easy one this since the word mystery appears in the title.  The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, comes from the Golden Age of Crime and is part of the British Library Classic Crime series. A meticulously plotted murder mystery that will test your powers of memory and logic.

A Book with a One-word title –  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi won multiple awards and a six figure advance from a publisher (good going for a debut author). I enjoyed many elements but overall felt it could have been an even better novel.

A Book of Short Stories – Failed on this one. I have several collections of short stories but seldom get around to reading them. I did start one collection but only read three stories. 

Free square –   My Antonia by Willa Cather, a classic of a farming community set in Nebraska. It was so beautifully written I’m keen to read more by Cather. 

A Book Set on a Different Continent – Even though I haven’t read as many novels in translation as I would have liked this year, I did read a few set in Australasia. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was one I highly enjoyed. 

A Non-fiction Book – The Good Women of China by Xinran relates the real life stories of women who live within the constraints of a society that doesn’t value women. All the stories were featured on her radio programme.

The First Book by a Favourite Author – Fail again. Although there were a number of authors I read this year whose work I have enjoyed in the past (John Banville, Anthony Trollope, Margaret Atwood for example) none of the books were their first published works.  

A Book You Heard About Online – I can’t believe it took me so long to discover We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson but it was only through other bloggers that this came to my attention. 

A Bestselling Book –   Published in 1930, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, may well pre-date best seller lists so I can’t tell you how many copies of this have been purchased. But it’s never been out of print and has spawned many tv and screen adaptations including one in 2016 so on the basis of its enduring popularity I’m classing it as a best-seller.

A Book Based on a True Story – Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised account of the life of Joseph Parry, one of the most famous composers to hail from Wales. Born into the extreme poverty of the iron and coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil he moved to Philadelphia with his parents at a young age. On his return to Wales he became the first person from Wales to gain a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University. 

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – as a literature student I dipped into A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf regularly but never read the whole essay. I corrected that ommission this year. You could say I left it a bit late after 37 years but at least I got to it …

A Book your Friend Loves –  I read By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. My sister, who is a Christie fan, loved it more than I did. 

A Book that Scares You – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel isn’t a scary book in station eleventhe sense it is populated by aliens or things that hide in the woodshed. But it did send shivers down my spine with its premise that the world is hit by flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks it claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. What made me nervous was that the survivors find a lot of the objects and technologies they had felt essential to their lives (like mobile phones) prove useless in this new world. I started to worry that I don’t have any of the skills that would help me survive.  

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old –  What a joy it was to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Yes it was sensational and a romp of a story but du Maurier also managed to underpin this with a more thoughtful theme about the female situation. 

snow sisters

The Second Book in a Series –  Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a prequel to his best seller Shadow of the Wind but was actually his second to be published. It’s more patchy in quality than Shadow of the Wind but is still a fast moving adventure story that can be enjoyed just for its setting in Barcelona.

A Book with a Blue Cover –   Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin. The story is complex (multiple narrators and timelines) but is handled well and is strong on atmosphere. The cover is gorgeous. 

 

If you haven’t come across Reading Bingo before, do give it a go. You might be as surprised as I was. And do take a look at the other bloggers who have participated so far this year:

Marina at Finding Time to Write

Emma at Book Around the Corner

Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks 

Merry Christmas everyone

What a difference a year has made. Last year I was anxiously awaiting surgery to deal with cancer and couldn’t face the idea of a family get together. I chose to,spend Christmas very quietly at home with my husband, the first time in almost 35  years of marriage we hadn’t gone to our family or hosted them at our place.

One year later the surgery is over, the cancer has gone and I’m bouncing back. Time for me to play host again and to suffer all the anxieties that go with that. Should I put the turkey in a brine bath or cook it sitting on a base of vegetables?  How do you get sprouts to taste of anything other than sulphur (you can tell I am not a lover). What are the rules of Black Jack again? Is it possible for six people to play Scrabble for an hour without an argument about what constitutes a proper noun?

Whether you are spending Christmas in your own home or with friends and family, marking the festive season with a BBQ on the beach or in front of a cosy fire, I hope you have a wonderful time. And may your tree be laden with bookish goodies….

 

Celebrate-2017

A year in first lines: 2017

 

Many bloggers like to mark the end of a year with a look back over the last 12 months. I’ve not done this before but some recent posts from Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at WhisperingGums alerted me to an interesting variation on the end-of-year meme.

This involves taking the first line of each month’s post in the past year to see what light it shines on the blogging year in general.

The ‘rule’ is to use the first sentence in the first post of each month.

I’ve had to bend this rule a little because I discovered that my first post was often a meme or in the Snapshot category. This is where I try to capture what I’m reading on the first day of the month, what I plan to read next and the state of my unread books collection (aka the TBR). Just using those posts for this exercise wouldn’t make for very interesting reading.

So I adopted my own rule where I selected the first substantive post of each month.

This is how the year worked out for me.

January 2017

Post Title: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

By the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.

The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.

February 2017

Post Title: Dominion by C. J Sansom

C.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.

March 2017

Post Title: The Greatest Novels from Wales? #WritingWales

A few years ago, the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?

April 2017

Post Title: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Some protagonists are designed to be annoying.  Some simply are that way.  But no matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.

May 2017

Post Title: The Cheltenham Square Murders by John Bude

The town of Cheltenham has a reputation for being the rather genteel, upmarket part of Gloucestershire.

June 2017

Post Title: My Ántonia by Willa Cather

It’s taken me long enough but the experience of reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia was well worth the wait.

July 2017 

Post Title: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way.

August 2017

Post Title: Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus

September 2017

Post Title: Between the lines: Jonathan Tulloch on Larkinland

Last week I posted my review of Larkinland a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin.

October 2017

Post Title: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read.

November 2017 

Post Title: Chocky by John Wyndham #1968 club

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old.

December 2017

Post Title: Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

I usually ignore reinterpretations and retellings of classic novels but the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was so enticing I set aside my normal cynicism.

What does this tell me about my blogging year?

  • It reflects accurately that I’m a butterfly reader. I flit around a lot between classics (My Ántonia and Chocky), Booker prize winners  and contenders (Life and Times of Michael X  and A Tale for the Time Being) with a smattering of crime (Cheltenham Square Murders) and translated fiction (Murder of Halland).
  • Most of my posts are either reviews or memes (I do the Six Degrees of Separation and Top Ten Tuesday memes). The Between the Lines post in September is a new type of content for me this year where I do a Q&A with an author.
  • I’ve clearly not made much progress with two of my long term challenges (Classics Club and Literature around the World) since there were very few posts on books in those categories.
  • My new interest in fiction by authors and publishers in Wales is beginning to come through with three of the posts reflecting that topic.
  • I’ve read very very little new fiction this year.Reservoir 13 was published this year as was Larkinland. It’s not quite as dire as this set of first lines suggests but it doesn’t surprise me considering that one of my goals for 2017 was to read more of the books I already own rather than buy yet more.
  • My intro sentences need a bit of jazzing up. I know they are taken out of context which doesn’t help but they do sound rather dull to me.

Although the idea, which originated with The Indextrious Reader., is to use this exercise to reflect on the past year I’ve found it’s also been helpful in giving me some ideas for next year. I’d like to do more Between the Lines interviews for example. I think my interest in Top Ten Tuesday has fizzled out and will come to a dead end next year. I’ve already skipped many week’s prompts because I found the topic wasn’t that interesting. It was fun for a while but I’m feel I’m getting list fatique. But all that is still in the future since 2017 isn’t yet over…

If you are minded to play along with the Year in First Lines, but want some further inspiration take a look at what some of the other participants have published.

https://whisperinggums.com/2017/12/10/a-year-in-first-lines2017/https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/12/10/a-year-in-first-lines-2017/https://beyondedenrock.com/2017/12/08/a-year-in-first-lines-2/

December 2017 Snapshot

8C9ECF31-ED84-4BD2-B103-A217F69D267F

Cape Peninsular, South Africa

In the northern hemisphere the consumer frenzy otherwise known as Christmas is in full flood. It’s been blissful to get away from it for a while on our holiday in South Africa. We haven’t escaped it completely since there are some decorations in a few of the hotels but we have been spared wall-to-wall Christmas advertising and the continuous looping of renditions of “Oh I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” on the radio and in store so-called entertainment systems. I don’t mean to sound a misery, I just hate all the hype.

Far more enjoyable to travel the roads of the Western Cape among the vineyards, fruit farms and ostrich farms of the interior or stopping off at magnificent bays along the coastal route. We splashed out on a treat this morning with a helicopter ride over Cape Town, Table Bay mountain and the peninsular that stretches to the southern most point in Africa. That photo above doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of this scenery.

But enough of the travel commentary I hear you say, this is meant to be a blog post about books and reading. How right you are so without further delay I shall do what I am meant to do with these nsnapshot posts: capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to December 1, 2017.

Reading now

Usually on holidays I race through books but not this time. Of the three novels I brought with me I’ve only read one so far — The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. I chose it from my bookshelves purely at random after my more thoughtful way of deciding which books to pack for the trip just resulted in frustration. I simply couldn’t make up mind and with time running out I just went to my shelves of unread books, closed my eyes and pledged to read whatever my hand touched. It was an ok read – as you can see from my review I thought it improbable at times – but I won’t rush to read anything else by Tang. My copy now has a new home in a bookcase at a hotel in Stellenbosch in the wine region.

I’m almost halfway through my second book which is my 45th Booker Prize winner — The  Conservationist  by the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. I chose this because she is from South Africa and the book is set in that country so what could be more appropriate than reading it during my holiday? This is a novel I started reading about a year ago but struggled to get into at the time so put it aside. Second time around I’m finding it far more interesting. It’s a character study of a businessman who buys a farm in the Johannesburg area and becomes more engrossed in his land than anything else in his life, including his teenage son.

Thinking of reading next…

Awaiting me at home is another Booker winner, How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman which I began to read a few weeks ago but decided it wasn’t a style to suit my current mood so put it aside. It’s related in a strong Glaswegian voice which takes a bit of getting used to.

Verbatim booksI’m going home with two new acquisitions after a little venture into a delightful bookshop in the university town of Stellenbosch. The owner was more than happy to spend time chatting about African authors and then picking out local authors for me. I could have walked away with more than two books but  unfortunately my suitcase doesn’t have space available.

 

 

The Whale CallerThe Long Journey of Poppie Nongena

The Whale Caller is the fifth novel written by South African writer Zakes Mda. It is about a man named Whale Caller who develops a strong attraction to whales; especially a whale he names Sharisha. As the story progresses, he meets a woman named Saluni, with whom he falls in love but finds he cannot abandon the love he has toward his beloved whale, Sharisa. Apparently this has been adapted into a highly successful film.

The Long Journey of  Poppie  Nongena by Elsa Joubert has  been voted as one of the hundred most important books published in Africa during the last millennium and has won three major South African literary awards. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel is based on a true South African story about a woman’s experience of the apartheid era during which she is forcibly resettled in townships hundreds of miles from her home. Her anger was shared by thousands, exploding first in Sharpeville, then in Soweto and to other parts of the country. It sounds an astonishing book.

The 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’m now at 287, somewhat higher than I would like but at least it’s not growing.

Watching

Nothing! Unless you consider watching the wind rustle the trees as watching…..

And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming at the start of another year.  Until then, happy reading everyone.

November 2017 Snapshot

This time last year I was nervously awaiting my first radiotherapy session, with all the dire warnings of the side effects ringing in my ears. Fortunately apart from tiredness brought on by having to do the trek to the hospital every day and hang around until the staff judged I’d drunk enough liquid, I suffered no ill effects. Twelve months on, with four rounds of surgery and a broken arm bone dealt with,  I’m back in the gym and have started up a little walking group in my village. We had 80 people show interest initially but they’ve gradually fallen by the wayside as the weather has become more fickle and it gets darker earlier every week. We have a core group now that is determined to keep going even if some days we will have to wear head torches….

Even more exciting is that we have a holiday booked. First one in two years. Hooray. So in about 10 days I’ll be heading for South Africa in search of some much needed sunshine, relaxation, good food and of course the odd glass of wine. I’ve already started fretting about what books I’ll take — honestly this is far more stressful than deciding what clothes/shoes etc I should pack. I’m not alone it seems — Tom who blogs at Hogglestock.com solved his problem by counting the number of pages in each book on his list of possibles, weighing them and then using some formula to work out what would give him the best return. Now that’s dedication! I can’t be doing with that amount of effort myself. I’m planning on taking just three ‘real’ books, all of which I would be happy to leave behind when I’m done. I’ll have my e reader as well and I may even find my way to a local bookshop or two in search of some African authors.

But that’s all in the future. This post is meant to capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to November 1, 2017.

Reading now

how late it wasRight after finishing my 44th Booker Prize winner —Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (reviewed here)    — I picked up another Booker winner that has greatly divided opinion over the years. How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman won the prize in 1994. It’s told in a stream of consciousness style using what can be called ‘fruity’ Glaswegian language. The high expletive count and the strong working voice and vocabulary meant it was given a less than rapturous reception when it was published.  One columnist accused Kelman of “literary vandalism” and little more than the transcript of a rambling, drunk. It does ramble admittedly but it’s not surprising since the protagonist is an ex-con by the name of Sammy who wakes in an alleyway one Sunday morning to find he is wearing another man’s shoes. He tries to piece together the details of a two-day drinking binge. After getting into a  scrap with some plain clothes police officers and taken into custody he recovers to find he is completely blind. That’s as far as I’ve got – not the most cheery of subjects is it? It’s not difficult to read. In fact I was surprised to find how few pages it took before I was able to latch on to the rhythm and flow of Sammy’s voice.

snow sistersThis is a novel best read in small chunks it seems so as a contrast I’ve been reading Carole Lovekin’s recently published Snow Sisters. It will be the first of her books that I’ve read and I chose it as part of my interest in promoting authors and publishers from Wales. I don’t go a bundle on ghostly fiction so the plot device of a voice from the past that begins to haunt two sisters in their home in Wales doesn’t interest me that  as much as the relationship between the sisters and with their distracted artist mother. The publishers Honno have chosen a stunning image for the cover by the way.

 

 

Thinking of reading next…

I have some other books by Welsh authors that I was hoping to read before November 11th when the Wales Book of the Year prize is announced. Unfortunately the plan went awry because I got distracted by the #1968club project recently for which I read Chocky by John Wyndham (see the review here) and Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So it’s unlikely I’ll read all three shortlisted fiction titles. I’ll probably start with Cove by Cynan Jones who is the best known name to make it to the shortlist. It’s his fifth novel.

The 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.  A splurge last month has done a bit of damage but not too bad since  the trend is still downward overall — I’m now at 288. I just have to watch out for the sale in the library that begins tomorrow.

Watching

One of the plus sides of autumn is that the broadcasters always come out with their new productions and series. Sadly the Great British Bake Off has now finished for another year. Maybe it’s just as well because watching it leaves me feeling very inadequate when I compare the contestants’ creations to my own feeble efforts. Talking of inadequacy, have any of you been watching the latest run of The Apprentice? The quality of contestants has been going downhill steadily for a few years now but I think they’ve reached rock bottom with this lot. They’re absolutely useless and I wouldn’t let them near a market stall let alone a business.

Recently I watched Gunpowder which was an account of the true-life plot by disaffected Catholics in the seventeenth century to bring down the King that we Brits mark every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires. It’s quite a brutal, no holds barred treatment. The first thirty minutes brought us that most gruesome form of execution where the guilty party ( a young priest) was hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Before that we saw a less common form of death, called Peine forte et dure (translated as “hard and forceful punishment”), where the accused is subjected to heavy weights placed on their chest, effectively crushing them to death. The sofa cushions came in handy more than once I confess. Sadly the main issue with the series wasn’t the level of violence (though thats been a source of much criticism) but the fact that the conspirators began to look more like catwalk models with judicious splodges of mud for effect, than desperados. Roll on the next series of Netflix’s superb The Queen, for historical accuracy and superb acting.

And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming to you from the sunny climes of Cape Town. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Oh dear Oh dear….

After months of restraint the floodgates of book acquisition opened wide this week: five purchases, a review copy and two library books.

The library books are in aid of the #1968Club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings which starts on Monday, October 30. If you’re not familiar with the club, you can find an explanation here.  Despite having more than 200 unread books on my shelves I didn’t have even one that was published in 1968. A quick trip the library and problem solved however. I’m reading Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs which was the third of her novels to feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the role of amateur detectives. I’ve also taken the unusual (for me) path of reading a work of science fiction. Chocky is a short novel by John Wyndham whose novels I loved when I was much younger. This one features a 12 year old boy who suddenly begins holding conversations with an invisible companion. It turns out not to be a benign imaginary friend but  an alien consciousness sent from its home planet to locate other planets that can be colonised.

New-purchases-2017Now that my broken arm has mended to the point where I can drive again, I’ve been re-acquainted with retail outlets which of course includes bookshops. I haven’t been in one for about 3 months so must have been feeling rather deprived because when I did cross the threshold of a little independent bookseller last week, I was so dazzled I could easily have walked away with half the shop.  They had a wonderful display of the books shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award, an accolade which is given annually to works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in Welsh and English. The winners will be announced on November 11 and I’ll be going to the event so I thought I should be at least familiar with the three shortlisted fiction titles.

  • Pigeon by Alys Conran: A coming of age novel that turns into something of a murder mystery. Set in North Wales it undercuts ideas of the countryside as a childhood idyll
  • Cove by Cynan Jones: Jones’ fifth novel opens with a kayaker struck by lightening during a sudden storm. Injured and adrift, his memory is shattered. He has to rely on his instincts to get back to shore.
  • Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis: A short-story collection that has a dark, gothic atmosphere

 

I also got tempted by two other novels: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa , an author I’ve not come across before. This is a novel about a family who flee Nazi-occupied Germany  only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion. I also picked up Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale. 

Continuing on the theme of fiction by writers in Wales, the wonderful team at Honno Press have sent me Snow Sisters, the latest novel by Carol Lovekin. Two sisters discover a dusty sewing box in the attic of their secluded home on the edge of the sea. Once opened the box sets free the ghost of a Victorian child who is desperate to tell her secret.

If I’m not careful all the good work I’ve put in during the year to reduce my collection of unread books will be wiped out. So I just need to believe that there are no new books being published in the next few months. That’s true isn’t it?

On Introductions

Book introductionsWhile catching up on back issues of The Paris Review recently, I came across an article which at first glance I thought was advocating a rather strange way of reading books.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and writer, said that “reading the introductions to great books …” was one of the great pleasures in her life. Nothing remarkable about that; plenty of readers can agree with that sentiment. It was the next phrase in her sentence that got my attention for she went on to say “.. and not the books themselves.”  That seemed a bizarre idea. An introduction is surely not meant to stand alone but to provide a form of gateway to the text itself. So why would you stop at the gate and not want to enter?

For Gabbert however, the fascination with introductions is the way they often contain grand claims of a philosophical nature; theories or big ideas the meaning of which  might, or might not, be clear but which she enjoys just because they exist. It’s a love affair that extends beyond the introduction into all kinds of material found at the front of books; from translator’s notes (she’s thrilled by the linguistic trivia and gossip they contain) and epigraphs. It’s a pleasure that apparently began with a Chinese classic text called Tao Te Ching which she has yet to complete yet she’s read the introduction to a 1989 edition several times and heavily underlined key passages.

I confess that I’ve read only the introduction to many books but they’ve always been  business-related titles. Usually it was on occasions when the book was required reading prior to yet another strategic review (Who Moved my Cheese, The Innovators’ Dilemma spring to mind here). Getting on a transatlantic flight once I was bemused to look across the rows of seats to find a number of my colleagues all desperately trying to read enough of Jim Collins’ Good to Great to be able to look intelligent when the subject came up at the forthcoming leadership pow wow. Every one of us admitted later that we’d got no further than chapter 2 and skimmed the rest…..

But if there was a non fiction book I was really keen to read, I can’t imagine reading only  the introduction. Wouldn’t that feel like going out for dinner but stopping at the appetiser? Even if the introduction didn’t give me the feeling this is a book I would understand, appreciate or even enjoy, I’d still want to read a little of it before making up my mind.

I was relieved however that Gabbert takes a different approach when it comes to fiction. For her, introductions to classic novels are so “notoriously full of spoilers” that she tends to avoid them though admits that sometimes the preface content does provide some gems of information (one novel she mentions began with a story involving Dostoevsky and a last minute reprieve as he stood before a firing squad.)

My own approach is rather haphazard. Before plunging into the meat of any new ‘classic’ I’ll scan some of the front matter. If I know nothing about the author I’ll read the biographical information and any notes which give me an idea of the period and the context in which the novel was written or explain the author’s influence on later writers. If the author has written a foreword I’ll read that also because it gives me an insight into what they were trying to achieve with their book. Some nuggets of gold lie within these sections — my edition of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell for example explained how the novel’s title was changed under pressure from Charles Dickens, a change that significantly shifted the emphasis of the book away from a story of individual growth and towards social criticism. In my edition of Trollope’s Dr Thorne I found an apology from the author to his readers for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.   

The one type of front material I try hard to avoid at this stage is anything which suggests it will delve into the themes of the book or characterisation. because I don’t want to be influenced in how to read the text — I much prefer to make up my own mind.

But when I’ve got to the end of the text, then I’ll go back to the beginning and read the foreword and introductions. Over the years I’ve found Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics editions the best at providing thoughtful analysis of the novel, particularly when they’re written by a leading academic. Often the emphasis will reflect the academic’s own field of interest. Reading an old copy of Jane Eyre I found an article by David Lodge about the significance of fire and ice in the novel (it was a shortened version of what is considered a landmark interpretation).  In a later copy I found the introduction was more focused on the novel’s underlying theme of colonialism. Neither of these would have made much sense if I’d read them before reading the novel itself, but reading them afterwards enhanced the whole experience.

It seems my interest in this front material isn’t shared universally. I discovered during a tutorial for an Open University course I was pursuing a few years ago, that no-one else had even looked at the content that came before chapter 1. For them it was just a distraction, or of questionable value. I tried hard to persuade them otherwise though not sure if I ever succeeded.

You can find Elisa Gabbert’s article in the Paris Review blog here.

 

 

 

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