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Wrapping up 2018

All you super organised people can now look smug at the fact that we’re two weeks into 2019 and only now am I doing a wrap up of last year. While you of course had this all nailed well in advance of midnight on December 31. You’re probably the same people who have booked their summer holiday twelve months in advance. And are never late with their tax returns.

But just remember……

waiting

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

I can’t procrastinate for much longer however so here’s the low down on my 2018….

If you’ve followed my blog since January you’ll know that I declared 2018 to be a “Year of Reading Naked” –  a “rudderless, free wheeling” year .

I said back in January 2018:

I will keep the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for a few years now like the Booker Prize Project (there is no way I am abandoning that right at the last moment) or my World Literature project.

I’m also going to start a new one – the Year of my Life reading project initiated by Cafe Society.

But I won’t use those projects to drive my reading.  When I am ready for the next book I’ll just look around the book shelves and pick out what takes my fancy. With some 220 plus books I own but haven’t read, I will have plenty of choice. I’m going to try to restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books but won’t be setting any targets or imposing numeric constraints.

Did the plan work???? 

To some extent yes… 

I enjoy the camaraderie that you get from participating in challenges and reading events. But I also know from past experience that if they require me to read from a list or to fit my reading into pre-defined categories, then I lose interest quickly.

Hence my decision not to join any challenges last year.

I stuck to that resolution almost the whole year but did succumb to Non Fiction November. In my defence this didn’t require any list making or reading; just writing a few posts.

I also cut way down on the number of Net Galley requests and rejected most of the direct offers of review copies.

All of which meant that, apart from the commitment to read for a book club every month, I had complete freedom over what I read. It was so refreshing to be able to browse around the local library and choose whatever took my fancy. Equally refreshing to go to my own bookshelves and select whatever caught my eye.

Somehow I managed to read 12 books that qualify for my Years of my Life reading project . (the link takes you to the list of books I’ve read). When I started that I thought I would read two books for each year (one fiction, one non fiction) but on reflection I think that’s too ambitious so I’m going for just one from each year. I also anticipated reading each year in order but then reconsidered on the basis it felt too much like ‘reading from a list’ which is something I’ve learned I don’t enjoy. So I’m free wheeling.

On the other hand … 

I didn’t make much progress at all with the backlog of books I already owned (far too many temptations at the library).

Despite stating that: “I’m going to try and restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books….” , what happened was that after a period of restraint at the beginning of the year, things went completely awry at the end of the year.

Hence the list of books I own but have not read, has risen still further.  I acquired 71 new books in 2018, most of them in the last five months of the year. Some pruning of the shelves between Christmas and the New Year helped bring the total down but as we start 2019 I still have 289 books awaiting my attention.

Nor did I do very well with my intention to read more books in translation and from authors in different parts of the world even though I took a subscription to the Asymptote book club for that very reason. Of the 12 books I  received I managed to read only one – The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge. I did tick off one new country (Cuba) from my world of literature project by reading The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa.  By the end of the year I got my total to 37 countries against my target of 50.

Favourite reads of 2018… 

I saved the best until the end. My final book of the year was simply outstanding. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is enigmatic, intense, hypnotic. How this never even made it to the longlist for the 2018 Booker Prize is beyond my comprehension.

Other highly commended books:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: the memoir of a neurosurgeon gives a graphic account of the mysterious world of the brain. In between he vents his frustrations of working within the NHS.

Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley. My first experience of this author. A strange but seductive story. I enjoyed her writing so much I went on to read another by Jolley – Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (review to follow soonish)  which was equally superb.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon. For once a much hyped book that deserved the accolades.

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller . Not as powerful as his earlier novel Pure, but still a very polished work of historical fiction

The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola. Less dark than some of his other novels but still shows Zola’s ability to capture the essence of parts of French society. In this case his attention is on the rise of the department store as a new form of commercial activity.

The Duds of 2018

There have to be some don’t there?

 

The worst books were obviously the four I couldn’t finish: G by John Berger; Ritual 1969 by Jo Mazelis, When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen and The Librarian by Salley Vickers.

But that was then…

We’re in a new year so it’s time to set new goals. Watch this space …..

 

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

WWWednesday 22 August 2018

The weeks certainly go fast don’t they? I can’t believe Wednesday has come around again so its time for another WWWednesday post. WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and involves answering just three questions

 

What are you currently reading: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m reading The Line of Beauty because it won the Booker Prize in 2004. I’m down to the last four in my project to read all the winners. I’ve found Hollinghurst’s book a bit of a struggle to the extent that I debated more than once whether to give up on the novel.  Consequently it has taken me weeks to get to within the last 100 pages. To be fair it improved in the second half but it will never get on my list of favourite Booker winners.

Bloomsbury describe it as “a sweeping novel about class, sex, and money during four extraordinary years of change and tragedy.” The years of change is a reference to the fact the book is set during the ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. There’s a tremendous amount of sex in this book – the central character is either thinking about it or engaged in the act – which would disturb many readers I suspect. My biggest beef about the book is that it was just boring for a large part of the time.

 

What did you recently finish reading:  Beartown by Fredrick Backman

This was the selection for one of my book clubs this month. The contrast with Line of Beauty could not be greater. Beartown is set in a small Swedish town that’s seen better days. The locals are crazy about ice hockey and pinning their hopes that their highly talented junior hockey team win national honours, a success that can herald an economic revival for their community. All is going great until suddenly a terrible incident changes everything, setting one part of the community directly at odds with another. There

Enjoyable to read though I think I know as much as I need to about ice hockey for now.

 

 

What will you be reading next? 

This is usually a difficult question for me since I don’t like to plan too far in advance. But I have to this week because I’m off on holiday at the weekend and so will need to decide what comes with me in my luggage.

There is one title that will definitely be making the trip to Germany.

 

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was selected for me as a result of the Classics Club spin and which, the ‘rules’ say I need to read by August 31.

Another possible companion is the book I bought today.  Lullaby by Leila Slimani is next month’s book club. The Guardian newspaper tells me that “This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away.”  I’m hesitating though because it’s not a very long novel.

On the e-reader I have the latest novel by Andrew Miller, author of Pure, which I thought was an outstanding novel.  Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, begins on a winter’s night in 1809 when a naval captain fresh from a campaign against Napolean’s forces, is carried unconscious into a house. He is traumatised by what he witnessed in that campaign. Miller is superb at re-creating the past so I’m looking forward to reading this.

 

So that’s how the reading horizon looks for me. What’s on your horizon this month?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pure by Andrew Miller – Review

Pure by Andrew Miller is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world. He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.

In the  Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The  subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air,  taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.

It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.

“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.

Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.

The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide,  who gives him his commission:

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.

Removed?

Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.”  Miller deftly avoids some of the biggest failings I see in many historical novels – the author’s tendency to want to drown readers in period detail and factual information and then to make their characters speak in a kind of cod ‘period language’.

Not so for Miller. He’s clearly done his research but only uses it to bring the characters and location alive through snatches of information about clothes, food and daily domestic life . His descriptions of the stench that pervades the neighbourhood were so powerful I could almost smell it on the page I had in my hands.  (rather like my feeling on reading the Paris scenes early on in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume).

In all, for me Pure was a gripping read.

Sunday Salon: Am I a threat to literature?

This is the week when I learned that my ramblings on this blog pose a threat to literature. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, considers people like me are undermining the status of literary criticism.

Sitting in my study, happily tapping away at the keyboard, I never dreamt I was wielding so much influence. I thought I was just sharing my own personal experience and love of reading with other similarly interested people. Stothard however believes the rise of blogs is bad for readers:

…. as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.

He seems to miss the point that many bloggers don’t set them selves up to be anything other than enthusiasts. We don’t claim to have special knowledge or expertise beyond that of being the target audience for people who write and publish books. Is Stothard suggesting that readers shouldn’t share their reactions with others – so would he like to see the end of book clubs and reading circles also?  And maybe he would be happy if we stopped talking about it to work colleagues and friends over lunch? Isn’t he forgetting the fact that many books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter to name just a few) became best sellers based on word of mouth recommendations?

Here is the report on Stothard’s comments: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-bionic-book-worm-8168123.html .

And now for other news….

End of another week and I am still behind with posting reviews on some books I’ve read recently.  I did finally get to review a novel I read while on holiday – Shadow of the Wind.  But I’ve yet to post my comments on Bring up the Bodies which I finished about six weeks ago let alone Pure by Andrew Miller which I read last week and Northern Lights which I also finished. I’m also still behind on reading for the Classics Club- am only half way through North and South even though I am enjoying it so far. Better luck next week maybe.

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