Category Archives: Reading challenges

Non fiction November: temptations to buy

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We’re into the final week of Non Fiction November 2018.

Katie @ Doing Dewey has asked us to highlight books that we’ve seen mentioned by other contributors that have tempted us to add to our TBR/wishlist.

I haven’t rushed out and bought anything yet but have been making a lot of notes about books I’ve seen mentioned by other participants in the last few weeks. I could have listed a stack of other titles but the chances I will ever read them are very slim since I seem to manage only a handful of non fiction titles each year. Consequently I have limited myself to three.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I’m curious about life in this country. It’s such a politically controlled society that we get only  smatterings of information. I’m wondering if this book digs a bit deeper. It was highlighted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction who described the book as a biography of loosely connected people from the North Korean port city of Chongjin. She added:

Demick painstakingly fleshes out the lives and memories of these successful defectors; the stories have stuck with me down to the minutest details.

I enjoy the odd spot of investigative journalism and true crime. There have been some excellent podcasts that have kept me enthralled this year but I haven’t read many books from the category. Fortunately Sarah at Sarah’sbookshelves.com had plenty of suggestions. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 

The one that most appealed was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.  McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist and murderer that she dubbed the Golden State Killer. She died before her book could be published and before she learned that the killer   was caught via DNA evidence.

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones

This one comes via a suggestion by Helen at She Reads Novels . I’m familiar with the Tudors and Stuart periods of British history but my knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is somewhat confused. I’d be interested to read about the period but I don’t want a turgid academic work. Nor do I want something this is just superficial. Dan Jones’ book seems to fit the bill. He is a trained historian so I know the book will be based on accurate and detailed research but he is also a writer and broadcaster so knows how to convey information in a compelling and engaging manner.

These are books that will definitely feature in my letter to Santa this year (so if any members of my family are reading this, I hope they take the hint.)

 

Non Fiction November: On the Art of Communication

It’s now Week 3 of Nonfiction November and we have a new host. Julie @ JulzReads has set a topic about sharing knowledge and expertise.

I don’t claim to be “an expert” on anything. But I do happen to know a lot about the practice of communications having been in that field for more than 30 years (gulp). I’m going to offer you a selection of books on different aspects of communication.

Presentations

Think back to the last time you were in an audience where the speaker used Powerpoint slides.  Give yourself a point if you experienced any of the following:

  • Slide after slide crammed with so much information you couldn’t tell what was important
  • Text so small you can’t read it even when in the front row and wearing you latest prescription glasses
  • Graphics you’d seen used in a million other presentations. They weren’t even that funny the first time around
  • The Jackson Pollock treatment. Every colour and type face available in the software programme had been applied.
  • Capital letters everywhere so it felt like the slides were shouting at you
  • You’d had enough by slide 5. Then you saw there were 20 more to come.

Over the last 20 years or so we’ve become so dependent on Powerpoint slides, It’s rare to be at any kind of meeting where there isn’t at least one speaker using this programme or something similar.

Most of them are deadly dull.

Powerpoint has been around for decades yet i think we’re getting worse at using it, not better.

If you want to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd and actually gets your message across, you need this book.

powerpoint presentations

Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck…and how you can make them better is  packed with practical ideas such as:

  • about how to cut down on the amount of text per slide.
  • how to use photos and images more creatively and
  • how to avoid a jumble of font sizes and colours.

There are also some very useful templates to download from Rick Altman’s website.

Even if you don’t think you need a copy yourself, do yourself a favour. Buy a few copies for your company/school/department. If they take the hint you need never sit through one of their excruciating deliveries ever again.

Speaking in Public 

You’ve been asked to deliver an update on a project/ or share your knowledge on a specific topic. You’ve done your homework. Your slides and notes are in good shape.  But now comes the moment that millions of people dread: the moment when you have to get up there and deliver those words of wisdom. The heart starts racing, your throat is suddenly so dry you don’t think you can croak out even a few words. And your memory has become completely blank.

Being a competent public speaker can put you on the pathway to success, whether you’re looking to teach, inform, persuade, or defend an idea.

But it’s just like any other skill. You have to learn how to do it and then you have to practice. Even the greatest orators started somewhere. Winston Churchill for example, whose speeches gave confidence to the people of Britain in the darkest days, wasn’t born a naturally gifted orator. He became one through dedicated effort. He learned how to use rhythm and cadence. He also practised delivery – rehearsing every one of his major speeches before he delivered them.

The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches In History is an excellent audio guide that uses some of the most famous speeches in history to show what makes a difference between a good speaker and a mediocre one.  This is available in print form but I think its best to actually hear the examples rather than just read about them. They were after all intended to be delivered aloud, not read in silence

Lessons from the masters

 

Communicating big ideas 

If you’ve ever been given the lead role on a project to implement a significant change, you’ll know how hard it can be to persuade people that this change is the right thing to do.  No matter how much you emphasise the benefits, they just don’t buy the idea.

You need to up your game in the art of persuasion.

Words at Work by Frank Luntz looks at the power of words to communicate big ideas and change opinion, affecting how people vote and what they buy.

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Luntz  talks through his 10 Rules of Effective Language (Simplicity, Brevity, Credibility, Consistency, Novelty, Sound, Aspiration, Visualization, Asking Questions and Context / Relevance) and shows them in use in the worlds of politics and business.   He also has a chapter for those of us who are unlikely to ever become Presidential candidates –  “Personal Language for Personal Scenarios,”  recommends the best language for apologizing, requesting a pay increase avoiding a traffic ticket, and other everyday situations.


If you know of any other books on communications that you’ve found particularly helpful, please let me know. I’m often asked for recommendations by former colleagues so its good to know what else is around.

 

Non-Fiction November: perfect couples

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For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.

I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.

Couple #1: World War 1

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War.  The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.

Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.

I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.

Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.

 Couple #2: World War 2 

 

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.

But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.

The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler.  It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.

 

 

Non-Fiction November: favourite reads

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I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month. There are five hosts who will take turns to post a topic for discussion each week.

This week’s topic comes from Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness is all about reflecting on the year so far via four questions.

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

Do No Harm

This is a toss up between two books with vastly different styles and topics.  Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is the no-holds-barred memoir of a neurological surgeon in which he discusses some of the challenges of working with one of the most complex systems in the body. The Wicked Boyby Kate Summerscale is a hybrid of biography/real life crime that focuses on the case in 1895 of a young boy who killed his mother and was sentenced to spend an indefinite period in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital.  On balance I’m going to settle for Do No Harm, largely because it was so different from anything I have read previously.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

poppy

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of World War 1. The Royal British Legion in the UK has been marking that event by asking people to remember people who were killed while serving in the conflict. I’m trying to do my bit by researching the 22 men from the Commonwealth who share my maiden name and posting information about them on line. It’s meant I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the war diaries; a day by day account; completed by commanding officers of battalions in the field. They can be uncomfortable reading at times – today for example I discovered one battalion lost more than 400 men in one attack in the final year of the war. I’ve also been dipping into a number of books which deal with different aspects of the war..

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Do No Harm is the book I’ve talked most about this year. But my recommendation always comes with a caveat that this book does go into a lot of detail about surgical procedures. So if you are at all squeamish then this book is not for you.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

The number of books of fiction I read each year far outweighs the number for non fiction. So I’m hoping that Nonfiction November will give me a bit of a nudge to get reading with the many books I have on the shelves. A lot of them are history related but I also have some about literature and culture.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson [bookreviews]

We Have Always Lived in the CastleIt’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.

How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously.  Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.

Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.

I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.

Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:

In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.

 

Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.

In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices.  Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of  the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.

To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.

Footnotes

About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965.  It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.

About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948.  Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel.  It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.

#20booksofsummer 2017 wrap up

15 books of summerThat’s it for another year. #20booksofsummer hosted by Cathy at 746books came to an end on September 3. I knew I would never be able to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I went for the 15 books option. Even that proved a step too far but so what – unless Cathy has a nasty surprise in store I don’t think any booksofsummer police are going to come banging on my door and hauling me into court to justify why I didn’t reach the target.

I read 12.5 books which is 2.5 more than last year so I count this as a success. I would have completed more but I had some review copies that needed my attention.   A bonus is that I read some excellent novels and there was only one book I failed to complete (hence the .5 I am claiming).  I’m glad I went for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime and works in translation because the variety meant I had plenty of choice when I needed to pick up the next book. I’m also relieved that I thought to include a few shortish books because while I enjoyed both Sacred Hunger and True History of the Kelly Gang they were rather long.

Of all the books I read, my favourite was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki which is a wonderfully thought-provoking novel set partly in Japan and partly in Canada. I’m usually a bit hesitant about child narrators but in Ozeki’s schoolgirl protagonist I found a character for whom it was hard not to feel affection.

From my original list of 20 here’s what I read (links take you to my reviews):

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson (review to follow)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

 Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones

The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (review to follow)

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson (part read – review here)

Books I never got around to:

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: a Booker winner that I started last year but stalled on part way through. I will read this later in the year as part of my Booker project which is due for completion by end of December.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

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Oh dear, I seem fated never to get to this book. It was on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside and now I’ve overlooked it again. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

 

 

The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

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My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year so I was planning to read The Kill to give it a kickstart. I thought it was book number 2 in the series but just as I was about to begin reading it, I discovered that although it was the second to be published the recommended reading order from Lisa and Dagny who are the brains behind the readingzola blog actually puts this as book number 3. So then I went shopping for the book they recommend to read second His Excellency Eugene Rougon but it doesn’t seem that it’s available as an Oxford World Classics edition (the editions I prefer) so now I’m stuck wondering which other edition to try. Any suggestions for a good translation?

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

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I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which was published in July, fitted that description perfectly. But after reading two crime fiction titles I lost the appetite for this one. I will still read it, just not in the immediate future.

 

 

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

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This was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories. And now I can’t find my copy.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

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Both of these are books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end Ghostbirdof 2016. The Dai Smith book is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.  Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016. I still plan to read both of these before the year is out

 

That’s it for another year. How did you fare with your summer reading projects?

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts [book review]

hogs-headThe Hog’s Back Mystery is a gem of a book for readers who enjoy crime fiction, prefer it to come sans details of bloody corpses, tortured victims or nasty things lurking in the woodshed but don’t want it to veer too much towards “cosy”.

It’s one of the titles republished in the British Library Classic Crime series and comes from what’s been labelled as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a term coined by the writer John Strachey in 1939 to describe crime novels written between the world wars). These authors followed certain conventions, chief of which was that readers shouldn’t be cheated by sudden revelations or surprises. No-one to whom the reader hadn’t already been introduced should be revealed as the murderer for example.

In The Hog’s Back Mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts this plays scrupulously fair with his readers. Every detail the armchair sleuth could possibly need to make their own deduction is provided. His detective in charge of the investigation, Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard, helpfully recaps and reviews his findings every few days. To play even more fair with his readers, when the crime is finally solved he provides the page numbers for every clue in the trail, a detailed timetable of events and a little sketch map. It still took me three quarters of the book to get an inkling of the identity of the perpetrator but I never got close to working out how the crime was committed.

I say crime but in fact this book has four. It begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from his home in the vicinity of The Hog’s Back, a ridge on the North Downs in Surrey. Doctor Earle left the house in slippers and minus hat one evening. Had he been abducted or murdered? Or was his disappearance planned? The mystery deepens when a nurse who he had met secretly in London also disappears. One theory holds that they had run off together but then a house guest of the doctor and his wife also vanishes.

Solving this puzzle requires all of French’s skills in getting people’s confidence so they open up to him and disclose seemingly small and inconsequential details about their movements at the time of the disappearances. They build a picture of an era and a way of life that most of us wouldn’t recognise today. The buses run so punctually that an alibi can be built around them and telegrams popped into a rural postbox will reach its city destination promptly. The families and individuals in this novel dress for dinner; eat a substantial lunch as well as dinner except for Sunday’s when it’s their cook’s day off so they take a cold collation and the men smoke a lot. French has a healthy appetite himself and is concerned that the quality of his work will fall away if he is hungry. Fortunately in this investigation he gets to do a lot of cycling between different houses, borrowing a lowly constable’s bike to do so. Could you imagine Inspector Morse’s reaction if told to forgo his beloved Jag for a two-wheeler?

There are a plethora of suspects, a multitude of dead ends to navigate and some complex alibis for him to evaluate before he can wrap everything up and help bring the guilty to justice. In the introduction to the British Library edition, the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards, indicates that Freeman Wills Crofts wrote an essay in which he described his method for constructing his plots. Apparently he first prepared a synopsis of the “facts” and the chronology of events then sketch maps of key locations and character biographies. Finally he developed a summary of how and when the facts are revealed to his investigator. I have to believe  such meticulous attention to detail is linked with his training as a civil engineer, an occupation which requires precision and logic. It meant that by the time I got to the end of The Hog’s Back Mystery I didn’t have that feeling I so often experience with crime novels, that I’d been cheated and led up a garden path.

Footnotes

About this book: The Hog’s Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1933. It was his fourteenth novel and the fifth to feature Inspector French.

About the author: Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. At seventeen he began studying civil engineering and developed a passion for railway engineering. He began writing to amuse himself while recovering from an illness, initially combining his new career with his work as chief engineer for an Irish railway company. Such was the success and esteem of his novels that he gave up the railway work.

Why I read this book: I learned of this book via Ali at HeavenAli (her review is here) and she kindly donated her copy to me. I added it to my #20booksofsummer reading list for 2017. It was ideal reading for my period of enforced leisure after my broken humerus adventure.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf [book review]

room of ones own-1Virginia Woolf’s essay  A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text of feminist literary criticism and, as such, is required reading for students of literature around the world. But I was a student at a time when feminist criticism was not even in its infancy so though we studied Woolf’s fiction, no lecturer ever thought to direct us to her seminal non-fiction output. My experience of this essay has been fragmented as a consequence; I’ve mostly encountered it as references in other works such as Elizabeth Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own.

Now I’ve read the essay in its entirety I could better appreciate the full impact of Woolf’s assessment of the difficulties and obstacles facing women writers and how they have risen above those challenges.

The first challenge Woolf identifies is one of attitude. Woolf dramatises this through her narrator’s experience of undertaking research at one of the Oxford colleges. First she is told in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to walk on their grass (is there a fear she might contaminate them?) and then that as a woman she has no right of entry to the college – such hallowed halls of education are reserved for male students only.  After a day at the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, she discovers that little has been documented about the everyday lives of women; what does exist has come from men who seemed to have been writing in anger.

What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. … I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; … what in short they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

The second issue is one of practicality. Reflecting on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives, she concludes that women were kept from writing because they had no money of their own. Significantly Woolf is writing at a time when the law had only recently been changed to allow married women to own any money they earned.   Without money of their own, and without any space of their own (out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble), their creativity is stifled she argues. And she points to the Romantic poets and those of the nineteenth century for evidence – all but three of them were university men and of those three it was only Keats who was not well to do. Poverty and poetry were impossible bed fellows.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from what the beginning of time . . Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

In Woolf’s view the lack of money and lack of privacy influence also what women wrote. Women turned to the novel form ( considered  a very poor second to the art of poetry) because it was easier to put down and pick up again without loss of imagination. If you had to do your writing in a public space like a drawing room rather than in the private male space of a study or library, then you would have to contend with frequent interruptions. And learn, as did Jane Austen, to hide her manuscripts and cover them with blotting paper when anyone approached her corner of the communal sitting room.

Woolf seemed to then suggest that the quality of what women writers produced was somehow inferior to that of male writers. Having highlighted people like Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters ( Woolf rated Emily as superior to Charlotte) she ponders how much better their work could have been if their experience of life had not confined to house and hearth. How enormously their genius would have benefited if only they could have travelled or gone to a war as did Tolstoy. In Woolf’s mind, War and Peace could not have materialised if Tolstoy had spent his life in domestic seclusion. Well clearly not – it would have been nigh on impossible to write so vividly of battles if he hadn’t witnessed them at first hand during the Crimea war.

There were a few points in Woolf’s argument I found myself challenging. One was the premise that these leading female writers seldom moved beyond the house yet Charlotte’s portrayal of the plight of Victorian governesses is all the more real because it came from her own experience. I doubt Tolstoy could have written so astutely about the position of a woman who was on close intimate terms with a family yet not regarded as one of them or as a servant. Nor does it allow for the role of the imagination – Wuthering Heights owes much of its power to the evocation of the wild moorland Emily Bronte knew well but the portrait of evil and malice in Heathcliff came from her imagination, not knowledge.

Then there is the idea that the challenging conditions under which such novels were created gave rise to a style of sentence alien to women’s nature..

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”

Instead of trying to ape male writers, Woolf encouraged her sisters to turn their exclusion from the opportunities afforded men to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

It’s a point which I found hard to grasp because Woolf never really gives any examples of what she means. Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

Im confident that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to understand Woolf’s essay and to fully do so I would need to spend many hours taking it apart point by point ( it gets convoluted many times as she wrestles with her own thoughts). But she ends strongly by positioning fiction by women as on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and exhortating ther audience of women to take up the baton bequeathed to them and to pass to their own daughters.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College,  Cambridge the previous year. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Why I read this book: Partly from a sense of guilt that I claim to be keenly interested in literature yet have not read this essay. Hence why I added it to my #20boksofsummer reading project.

Summer holidays 2017: What books are in your luggage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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