Category Archives: Sunday Salon
It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.
To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.
Role model mothers
Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.
Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.
Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue
Protection of her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of the limited resources at her disposal.
Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift
Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.
Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity. She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses. Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.
Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities? Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.
Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.
Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.? And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?
If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:
“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)
When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.” Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?
Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.
Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).
Winners 21st century
2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)
Winners 20th century
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)
The ones I am least looking forward to are How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman and A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).
My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.
Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?
A significant milestone this week – the fifth anniversary of this blog. And a chance to look back over the last few years and appreciate just how far I’ve progressed. Not that I am claiming to be an expert now ; in fact I still feel I am wearing my ‘learner’ plates; but I’ve definitely made progress. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the five-year journey….
Lesson 1: Avoid the ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality: I was disappointed in the first year that my posts didn’t attract many viewers or comments. I would look at other blogs and get envious at the response their content attracted. It took a while for the penny to drop that the world wasn’t exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for my thoughts on a Booker prize-winning novel. In other words that I couldn’t just publish something and expect everyone to rush to read and comment. I’d have to work at it; I would need to engage more myself with other bloggers. It wasn’t until I began connecting with other bloggers, commenting on their posts and joining a few challenges, that things began to change.
Lesson 2: Add new content regularly: One of the questions most commonly asked of blog experts is “how often should I post new content’. Not surprisingly the answer is usually “it depends.” By which they mean it depends on how much you have to say about your particular topic and what you think is your readers’ appetite for hearing from you. I’ve seen some blogs – usually ones which review products like cameras or software, which are updated everyday and sometimes even more than once a day. Equally I’ve come across blogs which just get updated once a month. The more common approach it seems is to go for three or four new pieces a week. When I first started I knew nothing about these best practices. I just posted when I had something to say – which was essentially once a week. But over time that’s changed. I no longer have to scratch my head to think of subjectsI want to write about and actually have a list of potential topics that I keep updating when new ideas come to mind (usually at the most inconvenient times like when I am driving and its too dangerous to start searching for pen and paper). Even so I’m also conscious that it’s easy to overdo the content and irritate readers who are busy people and don’t have time to read multiple postings from me. Nor frankly do I have the time to do much more right now. Ideally I go for three posts a week but if some weeks that goes down to two, I can’t imagine anyone will cry.
Lesson 3: A blog is not just for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen ads with the slogan “a dog isn’t just for Christmas” aimed at people who bow to pressure from their kids to buy a puppy only to find the novelty wears off after a few weeks. But the poor animal still needs feeding, walking, cleaning etc. And so it is with a blog. It needs regular nourishment in the form of new content. If needs to feel love through regular interaction; acknowledgements that people have taken the time and trouble to leave a comment so you should respond accordingly. And it needs regular maintenance – checking web links are still active for example, and archives are up to date. The key lesson for me in recent years is just how much time it all takes – and that doesn’t include the time to check out other people’s blogs and comment on their content…..
Lesson 4: Find your own voice. I mentioned last week that I’ve been doing some spring cleaning on the site (you can find that post here), visiting some old content and doing a refresh. Reading again those posts from five years ago has been a salutory experience. They were well written in the sense that were grammatical. But oh so dull and worthy. They don’t sound like me at all. Maybe some people right from the off have a unique style that reflects their personality but for me it’s taken a while to stop sounding like a professor and more like someone you could have a chat with about books. There’s a long way to go yet to achieve the tone I’d like but at least I no longer cringe when I read my posts.
Lesson 5: Stick to what you love
Creating the blog marked my entry into an entirely new world, one which had its own vocabulary. Readathon, meme, TBR: all foreign concepts to me. Fortunately there were a few kind people around who took pity on me and explained the new jargon. I must admit I got carried away for a time, joining multiple challenges and latching on to every new idea that came my way. It was fun initially but then began to feel that the blog was no longer my space, it was being driven not by me but by the need to keep up with external events. Instead of writing what I wanted to write about I was answering prompts from challenges and readathons etc. Gradually I’ve been weaning myself off these. I still do a few memes like the Sunday Salon, Top Ten Tuesday and Six Degrees of Separation but only when I feel like doing them not because I am slavishly pedalling away on a treadmill. If a particular prompt doesn’t interest me then I let it go. In short I will do only what I enjoy doing.
And the future?
There is still so much about blogging I don’t understand (like HTML) and many best practices I have yet to put into use like search engine optimisation. I’m also still vacillating on whether to go for a self hosted site to give even more flexibility in how the blog looks. So plenty for me to focus on for the next five years.
|What lessons have you learned while blogging?
Whether you’ve been blogging for 1 year, or 5 or 10, I’m confident you’ve learned some lessons along the way. So do share via the comments option – what’s been your biggest learning experience? What do you want to learn next?
I know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey. But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.
I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.
Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information. His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.
I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.
I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.
One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.
|How are your blogging skills?
Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?
In the five years since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads and Library Thing but I never gave much thought to putting them on Amazon. It’s not that I’ve consciously ignored that site or decided to make a stand over the way they allegedly use strong arm tactics to squeeze discounts from publishers and authors. It just never occurred to me that there was any real need to post reviews or comments there.
But then I got an email from an indie publishing company late last year which has caused me to rethink my approach with books I get via NetGalley. Anne from Le French Book www.lefrenchbook.com provided a reality check on the economics of book publishing and why, for small publishing houses Amazon reviews really do matter. Apparently publishers have to pay to get their books listed on NetGalley – they give these copies away in order to promote their authors. The reviews we put on our blogs don’t bring them any income however though they are important in word of mouth promotion.
On average, there are about 260 people who click to read our titles on Netgalley. If they actually all bought the title, we could pay our Netgalley subscription, but they get it free. If we actually got 260 (or even 200, or 150, or 100) reviews online, it would have a real impact on our sales. Amazon’s algorithm would do the work.
Despite an aversion to Amazon that I’ve noticed among some bloggers, the reality is that this is the site where visibility matters. This is still the biggest market place for potential buyers, they go there in their hundreds of thousands and they use reviews to help them make decisions on which books to buy. A handful of reviews per book, simply isn’t enough for readers to start noticing – these publishing houses need well beyond 30 reviews for them to make the promotion efforts worthwhile and help them keep generating enough profit to bring out new books.
How we can help
The appeal from Le French Book is really simple. It’s just requires each of us to take these few steps:
- Visit the Amazon website page for the books we read on Netgalley.
- If you are able to buy it, the publisher would be extremely grateful
- Either way, leave an honest review of the book. Even just a few lines could make all the difference but of course a few paragraphs are even better one line or five.
- And a step that never occurred to me – if you are A UK, Canadian or Australian reader, don’t just put your review on the local version of Amazon. Cut and paste it to the US page, too (that’s the one the publisher refers to when they try to book advertising and promotions).
Not difficult is it? It doesn’t take much time but when publishers are feeling the pinch it seems only fair for us to show our appreciation of the free copies we receive.
One other thing I’ve learned from this publisher is to avoid getting over enthusiastic when requesting books from NetGalley. I have too many sitting unread on the e-reader and for every one of those, there is a cost impact on the publisher. So from now I am going to request only those books I am committed to reading. And to make sure I upload the review to Amazon.
|Now it’s over to you
Do you put reviews on Amazon? Will you consider doing so for books you get from indie publishers in the future?
A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.
In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.
Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……
Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.
Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.
For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.
Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals
Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months. And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.
Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read
I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all. I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.
My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months.
Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.
Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog
I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…
My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images.
And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.
Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?
I can’t believe I let December 1, 2016 come and go without marking it with a snapshot of what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying. It got to almost half way through the month before I even realised I had forgotten. So let me do a quick re-wind…..
After the dreary experience of Little Women I needed a complete change of pace and subject. Waking Lions by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was certainly far removed from the domestic world of Alcott – this is a novel set in Israel in which a doctor accidentally kills a man in a hit and run accident – and is then blackmailed for his actions. It had a lot of promise early on but got bogged down too much in detail.
Come December 1, my attention had turned back to the Booker prize project. I picked up The Conservationist by Nadime Gordiver about which I had heard good things. The fact that it’s set in South Africa was another plus point. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood but it didn’t do much for me – I found the untagged dialogue confusing and I’m not really sure where the book is going. So I put it to one side and picked up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid instead. It was just the change I needed with its bold, humorous narrator who speaks directly to his main character and mocks the culture of self help books. Quite delicious.
As you’d expect at this time of the year, I’ve been very active with the book purchases. I try to get everyone in the family a book of some description – this year my mum is getting Our Souls at Night By Kent Haruf and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; my husband is going to be opening a veritable mini library which includes Keeping On Keeping On, the latest collection of memoirs by Alan Bennett. This is certain to be a hit because it’s a follow on from Writing Home and Untold Stories, both of which had him laughing out loud at times. My dad is getting the Little Hummingbird Cafe cookery book – though he has hundreds of cake recipes in his repertoire having been a professional baker for 40 years he still likes to see what other people create and to have a go himself.
Of course, having to go shopping on line for other people does mean I get tempted myself. It doesn’t help that so many ‘best of’ lists come out around now. I tried to be judicious knowing that I will be unwrapping some book gifts on Dec 25 and the fact my TBR has just jumped over 200. But I still succumbed to Kindle versions of The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Tender is the Night by F. Scott. Fitzgerald (hope I like it more than Great Gatsby) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (I didn’t care for his most recent novel A Place Called Winter but still think he deserves another go).
I feel rather adrift at the moment. No more episodes of The Crown which was a stupendous series on Netflix. No more riveting episodes of The Missing. No more Great British Bake Off. I’ve been trying to like the BBC new series Rillington about the mass murderer Reginald Christie but its not a patch on the film 10 Rillington Place with Richard Attenborough. Fortunately we have Wolf Hall (the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novels about Thomas Cromwell) to keep our spirits alive….
I’ve had an account with Pinterest now (here I am) for about two years and you know what – I still don’t get it. I have several boards. One is a collection of images interesting doorways (on holiday I like to take pictures of handles and knockers – don’t ask me why). Another is a group of fabulous libraries around the world. I also have seven boards for book related topics. I don’t really know why I have so many but they are in a bit of a mess.
I dutifully add to these collections when I see something on another board thats of interest. But I’m beginning to wonder what the point is – some the images get copied to other people’s boards but as far as I can tell none of this activity has resulted in any traffic to my blog or comments.
Looking at other book related boards I see people create images of collections of books often labelling them ‘Best books of xxx year” or ‘books for your book club’ but that would take a fair amount of effort and I’m not convinced yet that it would be worth doing.
Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way entirely. I admit I have a lot to learn on some of the image related social media channels (I don’t have an Instagram account because I can’t imagine anyone being interested in pictures of what I eat which seems to be a popular topic). Am I missing out on some key factor for success in this realm? Do any of you have Pinterest accounts and use them for book-related topics? If so, how do you get this to work for you?
This has been a week of landmarks, mostly small but still notable and one big one….
- I got to the end of Little Women. It took me nigh on three weeks to read this dratted book. I loved the
character of Jo March when I was young – she is the element of the book that has stayed with me for years and it seems I am not alone in finding her the most interesting of the four March sisters. But I had forgotten how preachy this novel is with its initial device of making the sisters follow the course of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and then the wise homilies of the saintly Marmee inserted every few pages. If it were not a required text for my children’s literature course – and there is an essay due on it – I would have abandoned it long before the first book was completed. By way of an antidote I started to read one of the series of detective stories from the 1930s by Dorothy L. Sayers which feature the aristocratic private investigator Lord Peter Whimsey. Strong Poison is the fifth in the series and sees Whimsey try to save a woman from the hangman. It’s a welcome light relief after Alcott but not too frothy.
- My official TBR has now passed the 200 mark. Despite good intentions at the start of the year and some concentrated effort to read what I already possess, it’s higher now than it was in January. I could winge and moan but its actually a pleasure to know I have books to suit every mood right at my fingertips (providing I can find the book without the piles tumbling over). Book number 200 is The Conservationist by the South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer who received the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Conservationist was joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1974 (sharing the prize with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). I knew that her writing dealt extensively with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid. What I didn’t know was that she gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.
- Inspired by another blogger – I think it was Lisa at ANZlovers – I have finally started to make Goodreads work more effectively for me at keeping a list of books I want to read. I had these in so many formats and places beforehand that it was impossible to keep track. I had links to reviews, emails, Evernote notes. But few of them actually said where i had learned about the book. Now I have a wishlist in Goodreads and have started to post comments to track where I heard about the book or who recommended it. Bliss….
- I know in some homes the word Christmas is banned until December 1 and that was the case with me for years but this year its starting earlier than planned because of a health issue. I’ve just launched a 12 days of Christmas game and giveaway which starts on December 1 – its the first time I’ve ever done this on my blog. Hope it works. Also hoping lots of people join in…..
- And finally, the biggest landmark of them all. I finished my course of chemotherapy. I’ve been fortunate and the side effects haven’t been too debilitating but still its good to know from the tests that it had the desired effect in halting the progress. I have a lot more of the mountain to climb before my health is back on track but I’m now beyond base camp. Next milestone is radiotherapy which begins on Nov 28. Cause for celebration I think don’t you?
Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.
I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.
Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
- classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
- 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
- a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
- a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway
Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.
I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.
Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”.
Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).
So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?
There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain. Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was
… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves
Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that
that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short and rather more considered:
First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.
What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
- The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
- Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
- Removed The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.
I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.
I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….