Category Archives: Bookends

Summer holidays 2017: What books are in your luggage?

summer reading 17The summer holiday season is in full swing now (at least in the northern hemisphere). Apparently this weekend is the big getaway when multiple thousands of us Brits depart this isle in search of warmer climes and sunnier skies. Even our Prime Minister has packed her bags and departed for a walking holiday and the Downing Street cat has been moved into temporary accommodation next door with the Chancellor. Those choosing to holiday at home just hope it stays dry but if not, then they’ll encounter merely the odd sprinkling of rain rather than a deluge. Nothing more guaranteed to the take the veneer off that camping holiday than day after day of rain fall.

Whether the destination is a lazy beach holiday in the sun,  a trek through the mountains of Switzerland or a meander around French chateaux and vineyards, our national newspapers claim to have found exactly the right books to be your companions.  I enjoy reading those lists of  ‘summer holiday must reads’ and not simply to look smug at home many of them I’ve read (actually the answer this year is very few since I’ve been concentrating on reading books bought in past years so haven’t read much published in 2017). But I often get ideas for gifts to myself and for others when I see the recommendations.

So what do the professional reviewers/commentators think we should all be putting in our cases and backpacks?

The Daily Telegraph listed 15 titles in their ‘literary’ category.

  • Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A sort of follow up to her highly esteemed My Name is Lucy Barton
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Her first novel for 20 years and it’s a scorcher apparently.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusak. Second in a trilogy that began with Outline, and is built almost entirely in the form of conversations.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whithead: I thought this was doing the rounds last summer so odd to see it pop up again in 2017
  • House of Names by Colm Toibin: A retelling of an ancient Greek tale about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Cassandra
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon: The (fictionalised) deathbed memories of Chabon’s grandfather, an American-Jewish rocket scientist.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. A very large cast of characters who all get their moment in the spotlight.
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru: Two white boys, one an outsider, one a nerd, bond over their infatuation with black music.
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: To call this “a novel of American domestic life”, a description I’ve seen in multiple places, does a disservice to Patchett’s talent.
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two female friends growing up on the same kind of housing estate in north west London where Smith herself spent her formative years.
  • The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: Expect the same kind of bewildering fragmentary narrative style as in her earlier A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare: the only translated book to feature in this list. Set in the Ottoman era, a world where everything is subordinated to the needs of the state.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman: Winner of the Bailey’s Prize 2017
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley:  A novella tracing the disintegration of a marriage
  • Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: Fire breaks out in a large house divided into flats. Each tenant gets to tell the story.
  • Reservoir 13 by John McGregor: Each of the 13 chapters covers a single year since a 13-year old girl goes missing when out walking with her family
  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman: A comic portrayal of  university life in the 90s
  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney:  A debut work about four Dubliners in a strange relationship.

There’s a lot of overlap between this list and recommendations made in The Guardian‘s article where they asked some authors what they would recommend and in The Sunday Times list of 50 Beach Reads. Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Names and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came up more than once.

How many of these have I read? OK I come clean – the answer is zero. I do have Commonwealth and Anything is Possible on my Goodreads wishlist and will now add two more as a result of these recommendations: Night of Fire and Reservoir 13. 

I do enjoy peeking behind the curtain to find out what authors will be packing alongside their flip flops and sun hats but the real fun for me comes when the newspaper approaches our politicians to ask either for their recommendations or the titles of books they’ll be taking on their own holidays. I can only imagine the angst such a request triggers because it comes laden with minefields for the unwary.  The ministers and Cabinet members will want to ensure their choices are suitably matched to the seriousness of our times so they’ll probably nominate something rather worthy about economic or social issues. Then they’ll think they need to mix that up with some choices that show they have the finger on the pulse so will pick one or two titles that ‘everyone is talking about’, probably from the top of the Sunday Times list. And just to show that they have a personality and are, deep down, just like you and me, they’ll finish off with something odd or witty. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some of these folks even get their public affairs advisers to put the list together so they don’t unwittingly trip up. What you never see is anyone brave enough to admit that they just want a darn good crime story or thriller. Where’s the harm in admitting that after a stressful few months, they simply want to chill out. I bet you that more than one of them sneaks an Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo into their luggage.

How many of these ever so worthy titles they mention, actually get read? I now that’s something I’d love to know but we never get to find out. No newspaper ever seems to go back to these people and ask them for their reactions. I bet most of them come back with hardly a blob of suntan cream  blemishing their pristine pages.

What will I be taking on my holidays? No flitting off to the sun for me yet sadly – I’m still in recovery from my last round of surgery and not yet allowed to fly. But I’m hoping to make it to a cottage in Derbyshire in a few weeks and since I won’t be constrained by luggage weight restrictions I can pack in quite a few options. As always I won’t decide until the night before we leave – or given my procrastination, it might be in the last 30 minutes before we head off.

What are you packing with your sun dresses and shorts this year? Anything from the list of recommendations that takes your fancy?

 

 

Revealing the most popular Danish authors

danish flag.jpgThe popularity of Nordic Noir has sparked increasing interest in fiction from the Scandinavian countries. But who else to read once you’ve exhausted the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (from Iceland) and Sweden’s Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö?  And what about the other Scandinavian countries? A few years ago I asked Marit a blogger from Denmark to share some thoughts on Danish fiction – you can see her guest post here.  Some of the authors she mentioned are not well known outside of Denmark and are not available in translation. Out of those who have moved outside a Danish readership, who are the most popular authors? 

This was the question a Danish translation agency set out to answer – and they found some surprising results, explains Lasse Nielsen who is part of the external online marketing team at the Diction agency. Lasse can explain this better than I can so let me hand you over to him.

Diction logoAt  Diction, we are passionate about translation. This passion and the fact that we are a Danish translation company led us to do some research to find out which Danish author has been the most translated over time.

Top 10 translated Danish authors

Some of the top 10 most translated Danish Authors.To see the full list go to https://www.diction.dk/10-most-translated-danish-authors

We did this research to hopefully inspire someone who sees it to read books by authors other than the ones they’re used to reading and furthermore to learn more about the must successful Danish authors. The inspiration to the research came from my favourite Danish author Peter Høeg, whose book Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which is his most popular work,  celebrates its 25 year anniversary this year. Miss Smilla is number eight in the list of top translated authors. 

Our study is based on the UNESCO database of translated authors where you can find every translation of authors in the world. There we found the Danish authors and for each of them documented how many times their work had been translated and into how many languages. The ten most translated authors feature in our graphic.   For each author mentioned you can see their place of birth, their most popular work and the number of languages into which that work has been translated. 

Our research showed, no surprise, that Hans Christian Andersen is by far the most popular author in the matter of translation and reach worldwide. His Fairy Tales has been translated into 180 languages. But for us Danes there were a few surprises as well, particularly finding Carla Hansen whose Rasmus Klump is on the list and the Puck Series by Lisbeth Werner (pseudonym) were so popular worldwide.

We’ve had a surprising reaction to the research and our graphic. Besides the fact that Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard came top of the list. I think that most Danes didn’t know many of the other authors who have become popular outside Denmark – people like Sven Hassel who was born in Denmark but moved to Germany to escape the depression. 

Unanswered Questions 

Looking through this piece of research, a few things struck me.

One is that my knowledge of Danish fiction is even lower than I expected. I haven’t heard of most of the authors in the top 10 (the exception being of course Hans Christian Anderson). I need to start delving into some of these other authors. Since I’ve never heard of them or even know what genre in which they work I had to do a bit of internet research. Wikipedia came to my rescue so below you’ll find a potted biography of the top 5 (after Anderson who needs no introduction).

Secondly none of the six titles Marit mentions as ‘required reading’  because they are considered classics of Danish fiction, make an appearance in the top 10 identified by Diction. Isn’t that odd? I’d have thought a classic would be one of the first to be translated. Classics from many other European countries are widely available (I’m thinking Crime and Punishment from Russia,  Les Miserables, L’Etranger from France, The Trial from Germany, Don Quixote from Spain and any one of Dickens or Austen’s works).

So why aren’t Danish classics translated? Is it that publishers think the market is limited because the books deal with issues of interest or meaningful only to Danish people? Unlikely – one of the authors Marit lists is Tom Kristensen whose best known work is Hærværk (published in English as Havoc in 1968). This is the story of a Danish journalist who is driven to self-destruction by drink. It’s theme is the intellectual, political and personal crisis experienced by many European writers and artists between the World Wars. Another ‘classic’ text is Alphabet, a collection of poems by Inger Christensen that deal with themes of nuclear war and ecological devastation. Surely these are topics of interest well outside the borders of Denmark?

Or are these novels not really ‘classics’? A thorny question this because there are so many ways to define ‘classic’. I took another look at the criteria used by the Italian author and journalist Italio Calvino (I wrote about his 14 point definition in this post) in the hope in might cast some light on my question. A lot of his points could apply to the titles in Marit’s list but there was one point that got me thinking. Calvino says “a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works.” So maybe one of the issues is that these Danish works are standalone texts rather than ones that have a connection to the past and set a tradition for ones coming after.

I wish I knew the answer. Maybe one of you who has better knowledge of how publishers reach decisions on what to translate, will be able to cast some light on this.

Top 5 Danish Authors Who’s Who 

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 –1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables.  Fear and Trembling (the book mentioned in the graphic) dates from 1843 and has been translated into 20 languages.

Sven Hassel (1917-2012) was the pen name of the Danish-born Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen who wrote novels set during World War II. He moved to Germany in 1937 to join the army. There are competing stories of what role he played in WW2. According to Hassel he was a naturalized German citizen fighting with the German armed forces.  He claimed to have surrendered to Soviet troops in Berlin in 1945 and to have spent the following years in prisoner-of-war camps in various countries. But it seems he was actually arrested in Denmark and was held in prison as a German collaborator. He began writing his first book Legion of the Damned while he was interned. His 14 books which depict the brutality of war, describe the exploits of a 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment composed of expendable soldiers – sentenced criminals, court-martialed soldiers and political undesirables.

Lisbeth Werner sounds like a Danish version of Jacqueline Wilson. It’s the pseudonym of Danish writers Knud Meister and Carlo Andersen  who wrote a series of 46 popular teenage books about Puk(Puck), a girl that attends a boarding school.  The series is available in five languages in addition to Danish.

Ole Lund Kirkegaard (1940-1979) was a Danish writer of children’s literature and youth literature and a teacher. He mainly wrote about the interaction between adult and child. The main character in his books is usually an anti-hero and the events are inspired by his own childhood experiences. His most popular title Otto is a Rhino has been translated into 15 languages.

Willy Breinholst (1918 – 2009) was a Danish author, screenwriter, and humorist. He was rather prolific – according to one web site he has around 165 titles to his name, most of them taking a comic look at the family.

Snapshot of July 2017

 

July snapshot

The year has moved forward once again catching me out by suddenly turning into July. So my post in which I take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read etc on the first of the month is a bit behind schedule. But I know you’re all desperately waiting for this (a girl can pretend can’t she??) so let’s get on with what I was up to on July 1, 2017

Reading now

A tale for the time being-1Last month the book on my bedside table at the start of the month was one of  the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It was one of the strangest books I’ve read for many years and one of my favourites for 2017 so far. (here’s my review my review in case you don’t know the book) On July 1, I was coming towards the end of another book from that reading list: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’ve since finished the novel (review is posted here) but would love, if I ever got the time, to re-read it because it’s so rich in big themes (the meaning of time, Zen Buddhism, suicide to mention just a few) and yet is a highly readable coming of age story about a lonely Japanese girl.  If all the books I read in July are anywhere as good as this one I’ll have a stellar month.

On July 1 I was also creeping my way through Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir which is the first in her series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I borrowed this from my sister just before going to see Weir talk at an author event marking the launch of book two in the series. I made it to about page 100 and then stalled. It’s not that the book is poor or lacking interest (I’m a sucker for the Tudor and Stuart periods in British history) but the characterisation lacks a bit of something special.

Reflecting on 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. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 276. Although I haven’t imposed a ban on buying new books, I have been very restrained. So far this year I’ve bought just three titles and acquired another ten through give-aways or from authors/publishers. I’m giving myself a huge gold star here when I think that in 2016 I bought/acquired 180 new items for the bookshelves.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t plan far ahead with my reading because invariably I change my mind at the last moment. I have plenty of choices in my 20booksofsummer list still and July is also when I’m going to join in the Japanese literature month hosted by Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. I also have a copy of The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius that I’ve agreed to review before the paperback version is published at the end of July. It’s set in her native South Africa and is a dual time frame narrative. Part of it takes place in 1901 at the height of the Boer War, when a doctor at a British concentration camp conducts a series of grim experiments on Boer prisoners. The other part focuses on a murder investigation in 2010 which begins with the discovery of a body burned beyond recognition.

Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK. It’s a fabulous adaption that is compelling viewing. In between we’re catching up on an old favourite – Foyle’s War, a British detective drama television series set during and shortly after the Second World. All the action takes place in the coastal town of Hastings where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) has deal with potential spies, blackmarketeers and a few murderers. Although some plots are a bit far fetched, the episodes are always convincing in their portrayal of the period (apparently the Imperial War Museum acted as an advisor to ensure historical accuracy).

Listening: I’m a latecomer to the podcast called Serial – season 1 is a compelling true story about a murder in Baltimore and a fight for justice for the teenager sent to prison for 16 years. It’s as good as another true life story I heard earlier in the year called The Body on the Moor in which BBC Radio followed a police investigation that tried over the course of a year to identify a body found by a cyclist. I highly recommend this one.

And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I haven’t gone off the rails and my book stock hasn’t suddenly multiplied many times over.

Caution: Reading Roadblocks ahead

cautionI decided at the start of this year that I wouldn’t make any reading plans. I’m just hopeless at sticking to them so what’s the point? And so far I’ve been able to keep pretty much on track, just reading whatever has taken my fancy from my current bookshelves (only a few non-bookshelf exceptions like Station Eleven).

But a few cracks have developed in that game plan lately.

First, along came Cathy’s 20booksofsummer challenge which I joined last year and thought would be good to repeat. I seem to prefer short term ‘challenges’ where you can participate at different levels. This one is just three month’s duration and though it involves making a reading list, there’s no compulsion to stick to the list.  I’m now on book five from my list and not yet feeling constrained.

Then Adam at Roof Beam Reader pops up with his Austen in August event where the idea is to read Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished), or biographies, critique’s etc. Since this is Austen’s bicentenary year, what could be more appropriate? Besides which I have a few non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read for several years including What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Bryne. And so I’m signed up for this.

The next person to test my resolve was Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza.  with her Japanese literature challenge which runs from June to January 2018. Easy this one I thought – there’s no need to make any kind of a list and most of the activity will run after 20booksofsummer is over. And so I’m signed up for this.

Still manageable I was thinking until I saw a blogger mentioned a few that I’d forgotten about like July such as Spanish Lit Month in July,  German Lit Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August. And then there is the All August/All Virago project happening in just a few months.

You can see a pattern emerging now I think?

For someone who had no plans, I seem to have acquired one which will take me into 2018. Hmm. However that’s happened, the reading journey ahead is going to get congested because I still have 10 titles remaining to complete my Booker Prize project . I’m determined to do that by end of this year.

To navigate around the bottleneck I’m going to reign back even further on my Classics Club reading . I’m way behind with that anyway – 16 books to read before the end of August if I’m to meet the ‘deadline’ of 50 books in five years which is never going to happen. I’ll also be a little more judicious about any further reading projects/challenges I join for the rest of 2017. I’ll do the ones I’ve already signed up for (20booksofsummer, Austen in August, Japan literature) but I’m going to forgo  Spanish Literature Month and decide between Women in Translation and All August/All Virago.

Wish me luck as I steer through the congestion.

 

Snapshot June 2017

 

June snapshotThe calendar has moved forward once again and its time to take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read on the first of the month. One June 1, 2017 I was:

Reading

the vegetarian-1The book on my bedside table on June 1 was one of  the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I’m approaching the end of this novella and can safely say it’s one of the oddest books I’ve read in many years. I knew, even before opening it, that it would be an extraordinary piece of work about a woman whose decision to stop eating meat causes an irreconcilable rift in three families. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so dark and provocative.

It was a good way to start the month particularly since I’d ended May with two astonishing books: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (reviewed here) and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mantel (my first experience of science fiction in many decades).

Reflecting on 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. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 280. There are new books still coming into the house but they’re in extremely modest numbers compared to past years (2016 was the year things went completely out of control). My most recent aquisition was on the final day of May when I won a copy of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (the first in the Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir) when she gave a talk about Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife). I was chuffed to be identified as the person in the audience who asked the best question!

Thinking of reading next…

 

Do I go for the latest Helen Dunmore novel Birdcage Walk which The Observer newspaper described as her finest work. Reading this will be a poignant experience given news of her death yesterday. My other option, chosen because the opening seems fitting for the current bout of stormy winds and rain in the UK, is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. As always I won’t make the final decision until my hand reaches out to the bookcase…

10 books growing old on my ‘to read’ list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is social reading the future?

reading future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What types of social reading are there?

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

Six reading strategies

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

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

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

Back on the acquisition wagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

My reading life in 5 books

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

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

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Collected Essays by George Orwell

Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse

The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott

Germinal: Emile Zola

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

 

 

 

 

Snapshot May 2017

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

Reading

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

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

State of my personal library

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

Wishing for…

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

On the reading horizon…

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

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

 

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