The year is barely a week old and I’m already feeling I’m in catch up mode. I meant to share my 2020 plans well before now but it’s taken me until today to work out what exactly I want to focus on this year.
I’ve spent the last few days soul searching as well as reflecting on my experience over the last few years when I set specific goals for reading and blogging. And I’ve come to a few conclusions which are going to influence what I do this year.
The End of Challenges
The biggest decision is to stop doing reading challenges that involve making lists of titles to read. I love the process of creating the list but as soon as that’s done, and it’s time to actually read those chosen books, my interest in them completely fades away. Having a list to work through takes away the element of freedom.
Instead of being able to choose a book at random from my ‘owned but unread’ shelves or delve into something that caught my eye in the library, I’m ‘having’ to read one of the titles on my list. Just so that I can make some inroads into that challenge.
It’s why I’ve never completed a #20booksofsummer project. Even reducing the number to 15 this year didn’t work (though I came close). It’s also why it’s taken me longer than the target 5 years to get through the Classics Challenge and why, unbelievably, my Booker Prize project is unfinished seven years after it began.
Away With Lists
Lists are clearly not my thing. Neither are challenges that require me to read specific categories of books or numbers of books within a specified time period. Some of those I’ve been undertaking in recent years, like the Booker Prize project have been entirely self imposed. So I have only myself to blame for that!
There’s nothing wrong with the challenges themselves. Plenty of other bloggers and readers find them enjoyable and rewarding and, amazingly, have the ability to cope with several at the same time. It’s not the challenge that’s the issue; it’s me.
2020 will therefore be a year without challenges. I’ll finish the ones I’ve already started – I’ve come so far with most of them that it would be silly to stop now – but I won’t go looking for anything new. I want a year of relaxed, stress-free reading.
I’ve Started So I’ll Finish
Booker Prize Project: One more title to go and then I’ll have read (or attempted to read) every winner from 1969 to 2015. That’s 50 winners in total. Once I’ve read How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, I’ll be done. I don’t regret having spent time with the Booker Prize but my interest in it as a literary prize has seriously waned in the last few years so I won’t be committing myself to reading any of the post 2015 winners.
Classics Club challenge: I embarked on this in November 2012. According to the ‘rules’ I was supposed to have read 50 books from my list by November 2017. Well, it’s now more than 2 years later and I still have three titles yet to go. I’m using the latest Classics Club spin to give me a nudge towards the finishing line. I still have books on my original list that I haven’t read. I might get to them over time or I might not.
World of Literature Project: Another self-imposed challenge to read books by authors from 50 different countries within 5 years. I’m two years over the target date with 9 countries still to go. No reason why I shouldn’t find those remaining countries before the year is over. I’m not abandoning my interest in reading translated fiction and fiction from around the world – just taking away the pressure of specific goals.
The one aspect of challenges I do enjoy is the camaraderie and feeling of connection to other bloggers. I don’t want to lose that – the social element of blogging is by far the thing that keeps me going. Without it, blogging would be just a form of vanity publishing.
Instead of year long or multi year challenges I’m going to switch my focus to small events; the kind that last just for a week or a few months.. There are countless numbers of these around so I’m going to have to be selective otherwise I’ll end up in the same rabbit hole I’ve been in before via challenges.
I’ll be joining events if and only if they take my fancy and I can do them without a reading list in sight.
Reading Events On the Horizon
There are already a few events that are calling to me.
Japan Literature Challenge, hosted by dolcebellezza is now in its 13th incarnation. It involves just reading books by Japanese authors between January and end of March. It’s a good opportunity to revisit some of the authors whose books I already own.
Paula at Book Jotter will be hosting the Wales Readathon throughout March. This will be the second year for the event and of course I have to support anything which promotes literature from my home country.
Unfortunately that readathon coincides with Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books so I might have to limit myself to just one book from Ireland. I’ll at least feel that I’ll have joined in the buzz. That’s what is so great about these short events – you can just dip in like this without any obligations to do much more.
Finally, in April, Simon and Karen will be hosting the 1920 reading club; a week long celebration of fiction, non-fiction, poetry published 100 years ago.
And that’s more than enough for me to be getting on with. What happens after April I’ll decide further down the road.
Will You Be Joining Me? Have you made any plans yet for 2020? Do they include challenges or do you prefer more free-form reading? Do post a comment below to let me know.
Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.
French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic – and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.
Ploughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.
Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.
The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):
The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.
While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.
Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.
‘You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’
His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.
A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.
Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.
There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).
But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.
Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’
Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.
I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.
In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.
On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.
I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.
And now for the 2019 roll of honour
Shortest Book Of The Year
Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.
Longest Book Of The Year
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.
Biggest Surprise Of 2019
I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.
Best Book By Welsh Author 2019
The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.
Most Disappointing Book 2019
Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.
Best Non Fiction Book 2019
I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.
And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.
Best Book In Translation 2019
A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.
Best Book 2019
And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.
There were four books that stood out.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman
How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.
And the prize goes to ……
…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.
I’d planned today to disclose my favourite and least favourite books of the year. But it’s been a tiring day and the brain isn’t up to it. So you’ll have to suspend your excitement for just one more day.
The idea is to answer some questions using only the titles of books read this year (ie 2019), trying not to use any book more than once. (Links in the titles will take you to my reviews)
In high school I was: Becoming by Michelle Obama
People might be surprised by: My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
I will never be: The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski
My fantasy job is (to be a) Ghostbird by Carole Lovekin
At the end of a long day I need: Three Hours (sleep)
I hate: Trick(s) by Domenico Starnone
Wish I had: (A) Milkman by Anna Burns
My family reunions are: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
At a party you’d find me with: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
I’ve never been to: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
A happy day includes: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Motto I live by: Dignity by Alys Conran
On my bucket list is : Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrozic
In my next life, I want to have: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
This was entertaining. Join in the fun and share the books you’d choose to mark 2019