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Sunday Salon: Phew what a week

sundaysalonLooking Back

Armchair BEA came to an end yesterday, leaving me with very sore fingers from masses of commenting but also fond memories from encounters with people who have a similar love of everything to do with books.

This was the third year I’ve participated in the event but the first in which I volunteered as a cheerleader. That meant not only was I trying to write a daily prompts based on the topic for the day, but also making a conscious effort to comment on other people’s entries. I incurred quite a few black looks from Mr BookerTalk when I was still tip tapping away at 11pm trying to get to as many other participating bloggers as possible. But I know how it feels when you’ve spent time carefully crafting what you thought was a good post, only to find it disappears into the ether and no-one comments.

What all this brought home to me was just how big a fan club exists for the kinds of books that I don’t tend to read at all; namely young adult fiction. I knew this had grown and grown in recent years but I’d say that nine out of every ten blogs I looked at seemed to focus on that category (or would you call it a genre?). I know my young adult days are long over but I can’t ever remember reading anything in that vein myself – I doubt there was even a descriptor of ‘young adult fiction’. We just seemed to graduate straight from children’s books to adult. Or is that my memory playing tricks with me??

In between commenting I did manage to write these posts:

Looking Ahead

Next week will be just as busy though in a different way.

Today I’m going to be at the Hay Literary Festival listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about her latest book Americanah which I finished reading last night. I didn’t want it to end, it was that good.

Monday sees the start of the next MOOC course for which I’ve enrolled. It’s on the literature of the English Country House. According to the introductory email from FutureLearn, this course will:

take you on a tour round country houses of Yorkshire and Derbyshire including Haddon Hall, Hardwick Hall, Chatsworth House, Brodsworth Hall, Bolsover Castle and Nostell Priory, and introduce you to some wonderful English literature texts. Each week we will explore a different historical period and a different theme which will include ‘Entertainment in the English Country House’, ‘Politeness’ and ‘Reclusive or Malevolent Owners’

Wednesday is our monthly meeting of the book club. This month’s choice is Wind in the Willows which I have yet to open so I’d better get cracking. Since most of the people in the group are in the 40+age group (our oldest member is 92!), it will have been many years since we last read this book. What will be interesting to discuss is how reading of a children’s text differs when you read it as an adult.

Somewhere along the line I need to start reading The Canterbury Tales which was the book I ended up with after the Classics Club spin. I’m supposed to read it by July 7 but since I don’t imagine its the kind of text you  can, or would want to, read quickly it’s best if I don’t leave it until the last moment.

So that’s my week ahead. How does yours look?

Armchair BEA: Beyond Borders

Tbook heart armchairbeahe challenge I have with the topic for Day 4 of Armchair BEA isn’t one of deciding what to write – it’s more a case of deciding when to stop writing. Today is all about one of my current passions: reading outside our geographic boundaries and cultural frames of reference. Given that I’m in the second year of my world literature quest, this is a great opportunity to talk about the experience of reading books by authors from countries outside my native land.

My adventures into world literature started in January 2013 when I felt my reading was getting a bit too ‘safe’. In my mid teens I spent the whole of one summer just reading classics written by Russian, German and French ‘great novelists’ . I can’t say I understood it all but it did jolt me out of my comfort zone.

Somehow over the years that spirit of adventure dwindled and I realised late in 2012 that I’d slipped a bit too far back into my comfort zone since most of the authors I was reading had the same frame of reference as my own. They were either British or American. I sometimes ventured a little further afield to France courtesy of Gustav Flaubert or Emile Zola. But there were great swathes of the world, like China or South America that I never touched. I decided to make 2013 the year that would begin to change.

I started with a general goal: read books by writers from 50 different countries. Just to make the goal a little more fun, I decided to start by choosing authors from countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian. It sounded easy at the time − just find the author/book and go and buy them.

Hm, not so easy in practice. I’ve really struggled to find authors from some of the countries on my list. If I find them, then their work isn’t easily available in English or the price is astronomical ($99 in one case).  The main bookstore chains in both UK and USA don’t offer many options. Sure, if you want something from South America it’s easy to get novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez but if your want to go beyond the ‘big names’ you’ll really struggle. Bookshops clearly don’t see a big market in translated books which is such a shame because there are so many authors whose work deserves more exposure.

But I’ve made progress. So far I’ve read novels by authors from 17 different countries – my world literature reading list is here; I’ve completed six of the 13 countries that lie along the Equator and 4 of the eight countries that are linked by the Prime Meridian.

Through these books I’ve learned about the symbolism of textile patterns in Ghana (this came from a crime fiction novel called Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey); the importance of wedding jewellery in India (Neel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others)  and the issues of female independence in Somalia (from Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib). 

It’s been a wonderful experience. I wish more people would join me on my adventure.

Want to be involved?

It takes quite an effort to identify good authors to read in some countries. Fortunately I’ve had wonderful help from some of my colleagues in different parts of the world (I’m lucky enough to work for a multinational company) but some even more special people who are fellow bloggers. I’ve featured a number of them in a series I call The View From Here in which I interview bloggers about the literature from their country and their recommendations on books/authors to read. You can see those interviews on the View from Here page.

I’m always looking for other bloggers to feature so if you would like to represent your country and be featured in a future post, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

If you have any recommendations for authors in some of the countries I have yet to visit, let me know



Armchair BEA: Novellas and short stories

book heart armchairbeaDay 3 of Armchair Book Expo America (BEA) and the attention turns today to novellas and short stories. 

I don’t read that many works of fiction that are short. This year was the first time I’d ever read any Alice Munro for example and that was only because it was the book club selection for that month.

It isn’t that I have a specific aversion to short stories, or that i think they are the poorer cousin of the novel because I don’t. Having tried a bit of fiction writing myself I can appreciate that it is often harder to create a convincing picture of the world and a convincing set of characters when you have less than 5,000 words in which to do so than in a novel  where the word count could reach as much as 100,000.

i think my issue is that if the author is particularly successful at creating this believable fictitious world then I feel cheated when it comes to an end too soon. It’s a bit like when you were young and you were packed off to bed just when the interesting programs came on the TV.  It’s simply not fair!

For me the outstanding short story I’ve read in recent years is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Written right at the end of the nineteenth century this was a work that stunned readers because of the way it challenged the idea that marriage and motherhood gave women all the fulfilment they needed in life.  It’s a story of Edna Pontellier, a woman in Louisiana who rejects the domestic role and instead embarks on a quest for freedom, with the huge personal sacrifice that entails.

Chopin herself paid a hefty price for having published this story. Faced with criticism that it would encourage young people to have ‘unholy imaginations and unclean desires’ she printed an apology for her heroine’s behaviour. Then the story simply disappeared. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s as a result of the women’s movement which saw it as an example of early feminist writing. Critical opinion now considers Chopin to be a writer whose work can be compared with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.

What I loved about this story was the psychological complexity of Edna’s character and the enigmatic nature of the narrative (Chopin uses many metaphors drawn from nature in this book). It’s so enigmatic that there is a question mark about the nature of the ending. I shall say no more in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.



Armchair BEA: Beyond Books

book heart armchairbeaDay 2 of Book Expo America (BEA) and today we’re talking about ways of experiences beyond the traditional formats of the printed word.

I’ve seen many BEA participants share their love of graphic novels today but since this doesn’t light my fire  I’m going to talk about the spoken rather than the written word. And by the spoken word I don’t just mean narrated versions of novels that you used to get on cassette tape but now more commonly find in compact disc format. I’m talking also about podcasts.

Both of these make the daily drive to work rather more enjoyable than listening to the usual blah blah from politicians on the news programs. They’ve also sustained me through many long car journeys and kept me going in the gym when I would much rather be somewhere else but persevere because of course I know it;s good for me and I really don’t to have to buy a whole new wardrobe.

Something I’ve discovered is that my tastes in audio books is rather different to the books I actually read. Normally I don’t read much crime fiction but oddly, when it comes to an audio version, that’s the genre that seems to work best for me. I find I can listen to them and enjoy the plot etc but I don’t have to listen so closely that I can’t watch what’s happening on the road. More literary novels however, seem to require deeper concentration than is safe. So in the car I’ve worked my way through many of the authors you’d expect − like Ruth Rendell, P. D. James and Ian Rankin − mixed with a few writers of historical crime fiction like Ellis Peeters and Bernard Knight.  When I run out of options amongst the collection in the library, I turn to the podcasts of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series and I’ve found some fairly old recordings featuring Agatha Christie’s Poirot in the ITunes library.

But when it comes to something to distract me while I’m on the cross trainer or the treadmill, I find I can listen to programs that require more concentration. Podcasts discussing books and reading are good (like the Guardian Books Podcast or The Readers) though it gets frustrating when I don’t have a pen handy to write down the name of a book I’ve just heard about!  Through ITunes U I’ve also been able to pretend I’m sitting in a lecture theatre at an Australian university listening to discussions on  children’s literature or in an American university hearing thoughts on key themes in King Lear. It certainly helps the minutes tick away.

Let me know if you’ve come across some good book related podcasts – I’ll start putting a list together and share that at some point in the future.



Armchair BEA 2014 kick off: introductions

Tbook heart armchairbeahis year’s Book Expo America kicks off today but since I can’t make it across the Atlantic for the in person event, I’ll have to content myself with joining in the armchair version.  I’ll be in good company since this virtual form of participation is a really popular idea, giving bloggers around the world a chance to connect and talk about the topic we all have in common − books and reading.

This is the third time I’ll have participated in Armchair BEA. As in past years the organisers have come up with some good topics for us to talk about on each day of the event. Hence you’ll see a lot more activity on BookerTalk this week. I’m also going to make a conscious effort to read more of the posts contributed by other participants.

To kick off, here is the post where we introduce ourselves with the aid of some questions from our hosts.

What genre do you read the most? 

My reading falls into three categories right now: novels that have won the Booker Prize; books that loosely can be called classics and novels written by authors from parts of the world outside my own experience. I do occasionally read non fiction but

What was your favorite book read last year?

I don’t use a star rating system otherwise this would be an easy one to answer, I’d just look up the books I awarded five stars. Looking at the list of what I read in 2013 it would be very difficult to choose just one title so I’m going to bend the rules a bit and select one favourite from each of the three categories of books I tend to read.

In my Booker Prize list, my favourite was John Banville’s The Sea. I know it wasn’t a popular choice for the prize but I loved the lyrical style of his writing.

From my classics club list I’m choosing Grahame Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It was actually a re-read which tells you something about how much I love this book.

From my world literature list I’m selecting Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the hardest book I read all year because of its subject but well worth the effort.

What’s your favorite book so far this year?

It has to be Emile Zola’s  L’Assommoir. This is the third book from his RougonMacquart series I’ve read and I was hoping it would be on a par with the other two (Germinal and La Bete Humaine) and it was.  An absolutely gripping novel about poverty and desperation in nineteenth century Paris. 

What is your favorite blogging resource?

Apart from the many, many other bloggers whose sites give me inspiration, some of the websites I make a point of reading will be familiar to most bloggers I suspect — like Book Riot or Publishing Perspectives. I also enjoy The Bookseller though haven’t taken the plunge to get a regular subscription yet; I just buy an edition if I see something that interests me.

Share your favorite book or reading related quote.

This comes from my favourite book of all time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book which if I were in the undesirable situation of being stuck on a desert island would be my must have companion.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”


Armchair BEA: Curtain Down

BEALast day of Armchair BEA for 2013 and a chance to recap on the experience. Last year I dipped into the week since it had already started before I discovered it was on and then I didn’t really understand how it worked.

This year I got far more involved by posting on at least one of the featured topics each day and looking at some of the other contributors.

Day 1: Introduction

Day 2 Genres

Day 3:Literary Fiction 

Day 4: Non Fiction

Day 5 Children’s Literature 

I enjoyed having the topics as prompts to get the brain working . At first it was hard to think of some non fiction books since I don’t read that many. Now the post is done of course I can think of loads more I should have listed as recommended reads including:

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; very readable book on why trends begin. Read it to find out whether you are a maven or maybe an early adopter

Wild Swans – how could I possibly have forgotten about that one having recommended it to so many people in the past

Mao’s Last Dancer – the true life story of a boy’s rise from small village in China to become a world class ballet dancer


I’ve also ‘met’ many new bloggers who have introduced me to some new authors for my world literature challenge and discovered a new way to use Google to create a virtual map of all the places I visit on my reading trip – take a look at this from The Relentless Reader My own efforts are pretty feeble at the moment but will get around to sharing  my version at some point.


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