Category Archives: Memes

An ever so tiny book splurge

After six months in which I bought only three books I’ve been on a little spree this week. I say ‘little’ because I’m determined not to let the TBR get further out of control. This is a reward for sticking fairly well to my goals for the first half of the year. As reminder I set two goals:

  1. Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. In other words: read the books I already own rather than go chasing shiny new ones. This was a more positive approach than a book ban (I know from past experience I’d never keep to that) and did give me the flexibility to borrow from libraries. I did acquire  a few titles via give aways and offers of review copies but I also declined more than I accepted so the TBR is still on a downward trend. Down from 318 at the start of the year to 276 by end of June. I’m counting this as success.
  2. My second goal was to Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. With help from my husband who is a whizz-kid with this software program and some online tutorials I’ve managed to get beyond the basics. Much huffing and puffing is still involved each time I want to do a new montage and realise I’ve forgotten the instructions again or my computer won’t do what the tutorial says it should do. But I’m getting there.

I’m giving myself a breather in July before going once more unto the breach for the final five months of the year.

I’ll keep goal number one but will give myself a bit more slack to buy a few new titles (I’m thinking four new books would be a reasonable allowance for a 5 month period). I have a very long wishlist that I maintain on Goodreads so chosing just four books from that list could be a challenge.

Goal two will remain – there is  still a lot more I to learn with Photoshop so I don’t think I can declare victory just yet.

I’m going to add a third goal.

Goal 3: I will finish all the books remaining in my Booker project.  I have only 8 more titles to go before I’m done. No reason why I can’t do this by end of December.

New purchases 

Books purchased July 2017

So what did I buy on my mini spree? I deliberately avoided going to a bookshop which would be way too much temptation. Mind you I have a few hours to kill in the city tomorrow so my resolve might waver….. (I’m making zero promises!).

The local branch of The Works was doing a deal on paperbacks of 3 for £5. I couldn’t find three but did end up with:

Stasi Wolf by David Young. This is an atmospheric crime fiction series set in East Germany in the 1970s, in other words when it was still part of the Soviet empire. There’s a good review of this book by MarinaSofia at CrimeFictionLover.    I won book two in the series in a give away earlier this year but was then advised to start from the beginning so was delighted to find what I thought was book. That will pay me to give closer attention to my TBR – I got home to find Stasi Wolf is the one I already have. Maybe it doesn’t count as a purchase in that case???

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. I wasn’t familiar with this title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec and the publishers have a habit of using alternative titles for some of her books. So I did a quick web search while standing in the shop to confirm that I don’t already have this under a different name. I should have done that with Stasi Wolf shouldn’t I?

My local library branch has a regular book sale table which I browse regularly, on behalf of my dad, for books in the  Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime fiction series by Peter James. He loves this series set in Brighton but gets frustrated because he can’t borrow them from his library in the order of publication. So I keep an eye out to fill in any gaps for him. No luck again on my recent visit but I did find that monstrously large book at the bottom of the stack.

Cwmcardy is published by the Library of Wales as part of their project to bring out-of-print or forgotten books of Welsh literature back into play. Cwmcardy is one of two epic novels written by Lewis Jones  about  his experience in South Wales between 1890s and 1930s and is considered one of the Great Welsh novels. This is a rather graphic portrait of exploitation, violence and political aspiration experienced by the industrial workers of this part of Wales around the time of the General Strike in 1926. That could make it sound rather grim and ‘worthy’ but I note that the reviewer who nominated this as a Great Welsh Novel,  considered it a page-turner full of action and sensation.  It’s more than 700 pages long so quite when I’ll get round to reading it is a big question – however it cost 20pence which seemed a small investment for strengthening my collection of Welsh authors.

 

 

From Australian mystery to the doyenne of crime in six steps

six degrees June 2016

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.

Our starting book this month is  Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots.  They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.

A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.

Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.

Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes  and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment. 

Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough.  Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol.  The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his  feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.    

Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.

The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone. 

A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to  look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing. 

And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long. 

8 Favourite Reads of 2017 (so far)

Best reads of 2017We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing  and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here 

Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Book series on my radar

This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.”  This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.

Current Series Reading

L'AssommoirThe Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment.  So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog  created by Lisa and Dagny.

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeChronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website

great-reckoning

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends.  I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do.  You can find more about Louise Penny at her website

Series I may not finish

LamentationsThe Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)

Future Series to Read

Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles

strangers and brothers

Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery.  All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

10 literary fathers to love or dislike

It will be Father’s Day in the UK this Sunday, in honour of which the Top Ten Tuesday prompt this week is all about fathers in literature.  Some literary dads we love to love; others we love to hate and give thanks that we are not their offspring.

One of the good guys: Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck

1.Let’s get the obvious one of out of the way first. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a dad most of us would love to have. Dignified, courageous, loyal, kind and loving, he imparts lessons in life to his children through both his words and his deeds.

2. Jean-Joachim Goriot in Old Goriot by Balzac is a successful member of France’s burgeoning bourgeoisie and yet the only thing that gives him any pleasure is the happiness of his daughters. Unfortunately for him, they see this as a green light to fleece him blind, bringing him to bankruptcy. If you’re a money-grabbing scrounger of a child then you’d probably be delighted to have a father who is willing, even on his deathbed, to sell his remaining possessions so you can go to a ball. The rest of us will wince.

3. My next father; Michael Henchard from Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge; is a complex character. As a young man with too much of a liking for drink, he auctions off his wife and baby daughter while under the influence. He hides his guilty secret for years so he can rise in the world. When they reappear he tries to do right by them but his jealousy and pride lead him to bully his daughter. At times Henchard is a man  who, even if we don’t like him, can at least feel sorry for when he loses his position in the town and is ridiculed by his neighbours but then he goes and spoils it all by  his treatment of his daughter.

4. All book lovers will appreciate the father figure in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which the young boy Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father.

I was hard pressed to find other positive role models or dads for whom we can show sympathy. Maybe its more fun for authors to create characters we dislike?

5. In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens created a father who abuses the love his children have for him. William Dorrit’s entire family go down with him when he is declared a bankrupt and sent to Marshalsea prison. He pretends not to know that his daughters are forced to find menial work just to put food on the table. Instead of appreciating the love his youngest daughter Amy shows for him, he repays her with criticism. A thoroughly self-centered man whom it’s difficult to love or to whom we feel any sympathy.

6. But Mr Dorrit could still be considered preferable as a father to Heathcliff.  The brooding protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights fathers a sickly child called Linton whom he despises. Heathcliff harshly uses him as a means to exact revenge on the Lintons over the death of his beloved Cathy, to the extent of forcing him into a marriage.

A dangerous role model: Harrison Ford as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast

7. Speaking of fathers who manipulate their children to serve their own ambitions, takes me to The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Allie Fox is a man who gets it into his head that America has gone to the dogs.  To protect his family he uproots them and moves to a South American jungle where he plans to build a utopian society closer to his own ideals. But in his effort to achieve his dream he lies to his children, bullies them and puts their lives in danger.

8. At least Allie shows an emotional connection with his children which is more than can be said for Mr Ryder senior in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is a man who enjoys rare books more than he does his son’s company. Having barely registered the fact that his son Charles has even been off at Oxford University for many months he can’t wait to see him gone again, eagerly encouraging him to Go off to visit his new chums at Brideshead or  Venice. Anywhere is preferable to having him at home.

9. Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son is another cold fish. He is desperate for a son who will join him in his trading company. When his unfortunate wife gives birth first to a daughter, his dismay is so great that he barely acknowledges the girl’s presence. She grows up without any sign of affection let alone love from her father and every overture she makes towards him is repelled. But still she loves him.

10. The father/son relationship is central to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe where it is used as a theme around the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success. Although Unoka is a kind man with a number of positive traits he is also shown as a failure because he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family.  The personality of his son Okonkwo is shaped as a response to his father, as he determines to be everything his father wasn’t.

The examples below are from novels I’ve read. If you have other favourites do share them in in the comments field.

Shopgirl to doctor’s wife in six steps

shopgirlThis month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Shopgirl –  a novella written by  the comedian Steve Martin (who then turned it into a film).  Since I’ve never heard of it, nor read it, nor have any interest in doing so, I’ve had to rely on an internet search to tell me its meant to be a love story.

Well of course the obvious link would be to the novella based on the film love storyof that name, yes i’m talking about Love Story. The one written by Eric Segal that includes the immensely sugary line “love is never having to say you’re sorry’ and whose film version has Ali McGraw looking stunning even when she is dying (how insensitive of the producers to all the cancer patients who end up ravaged by disease). But yes, I confess I did read the book and watched the film. And yes I did cry. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my youthful folly…

dombey and sonSo lets hop quickly to another death-bed scene which comes trailing clouds of sentimentality. For this I have to turn to the master of sentimentality himself, Mr Charles Dickens. Death crops up a lot in his novels – not surprising given the mortality rates experienced in the 19th century – and he seems often to wallow in those scenes. One that comes to mind for me is the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son.  His demise doesn’t come as any great shock – Dickens drops enough hints for us to know he is never going to fulfil his father’s dream of a son to inherit the Dombey trading empire. Paul’s deathbed scene comes with the kind of lush prose beloved of Dickens.

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dombey and Son is about commerce and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on society. But the real force of the novel comes from the way he depicts the coming of the railways and how it transforms a nation.  “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”

Dickens was a rail enthusiast but he also recognised its destructive power. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of how railway construction is a kind of “earthquake” that destroys the old community of Camden Town in London. He turns it into a force that bursts with energy and ultimately into a monster that brings death to one of the characters.

One memorable scene has a train that seems out of control and it shriek, roars and la bete humainerattles through the English countryside. It reminds me of Emile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) which has a tremendously vivid and exciting scene involving a runaway train. Railways are central to the plot of this novel – the main character Jacques Lantier (the human beast of the title) is an engine driver who has a passionate affair with his cousin Flore. And as in Dombey and Son the train proves to be a means of death. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to know who dies. If you’ve not read it yet, I urge you to do so soon because this is a wonderfully taut psychological tale about madness and obsession and whether murderers are the result of nature:

As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.

therese raquin-1And therein I find the clue to my next link. I first read Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola long before I was introduced to his Rougon-Macquart series. It was riveting from the initial introduction to Thérèse herself as a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin, Camille, a sickly and egocentric man. When the opportunity arises,  Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends. But their clandestine meetings are not enough for the lovers – Camille must be despatched toute suite. And then their troubles really begin for the pair are haunted by their actions:

He knew that, from now on, every day would be alike, that they would all bring the same sufferings. And he saw the weeks, the months, the years that awaited him, gloomy and implacable, coming one after the other, falling on him and suffocating him bit by bit. When the future is without hope, the present takes on a vile, bitter taste.

I don’t know how Zola’s first readers could bear the suspense as they waited for the next installment of this story to appear in the journal L’Artiste. I know I could not put the novel down until I’d devoured every word.

Thérèse Raquin is of course a novel about retribution and guilt which gives me an easy crime-and-punishmenttransition to the fifth book in my chain: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  The whole premise of this novel is that it explores the question of whether there are circumstances under which it’s acceptable to commit a crime ? Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St Petersburg, certainly thinks so. He believes he is one of the “extrordinary people” which means not only is he permitted to murder two women, but can do so  without fear of consequence. The novel introduces us  to the theory of ‘Superman’ propounded by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche  but don’t let that put you off – you can easily read this as a psychological cat and mouse tale. My review is here.

madame bovaryAnd now we come to the sixth and final book in this chain. I could take an easy option and go for a link based on place via The Man in St Petersburg by Ken Follett, one of his early (and best) novels. But I rather think I’ll stick with the classics and head back to France to a protagonist whose actions, like those of Raskolnikov, have caught up with her. Poor Emma Bovary. All she only wanted in life was to be surrounded by beautiful things and live an exciting life.

“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

But poor Emma is married to a very dull provincial doctor. In search of excitement she begins borrowing money  to satisfy her fancy for luxury goods and indulging in a few illicit affairs. When everything collapses about her she sees no way out other than suicide. Hers will be a beautiful death she imagines as she lies on her bed having swallowed arsenic. But Gustav Flaubert shows how, as with so much of her life, Emma suffers from dillusions.

I know we are meant to be critical of Emma, particularly for the way she abandons her daughter, but I also feel very sorry for her. Instead of marrying a doctor she might have had more fun in her life if she’d become a shop assistant. I can imagine her in her element behind the counter of some department store discussing the niceties of leather and lace gloves with society ladies.  But then it would have been a very different book and more akin to the version with which this chain started.

 

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

From slaps to battles in #6degrees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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