I like to capture what I’m reading on the first day of each month so I can look back on it in a few years from now and relive the memory. I’m a little late this month but here’s what I was up to on May 1, 2015 in the realm of reading, listening to and watching.
When I heard that the Costa Award for Debut novel had gone to a book written from the perspective of a teenager with mental health problems, I decided it was too close to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (which I didn’t care for) to be of interest. But come May 1 guess what I was reading? Yes, Nathan Filer’s Costa Award winning The Shock of the Fall. Not only was I reading it, I was engrossed in it. If it hadn’t been for the fact this was the selection for the month at the book club I wouldn’t have bothered but I would then have missed a wonderful novel. It is extremely well constructed, has a strong narratorial voice and very deftly seems to weave in messages about the appalling way in which people with mental health are treated without making me feel I am being hit over the head.
I loaded up my iPod thinking I would have many hours of opportunity on holiday to enjoy some good audio books while finishing my cross stitch project. Not only didn’t I finish the cross stitch but I didn’t even get through one audio book. I’m about a third of the way through Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. It’s a wonderful portrait of a recently widowed mother of four living in Wexford, Ireland, trying to keep the family together while she grieves for her husband. This is not a book I want to rush through. I don’t usually care for Fiona Shaw but as a narrator she is is doing a beautiful job.
I have learned in recent weeks that I am not capable of doing a full time job, taking an active part in a local campaign group to save our library and trying to follow some on line classes. Consequently my time with Coursera’s module on Australian literature was short – the lectures I did watch were interesting so I will download and watch at a more leisurely pace in the future. I did manage to finish a short course on genealogy however so all was not lost. But I’m going to reign in my enthusiasm and not start anything new for a while.
Nothing! Too much to do on holiday to spend it stuck in front of a tv screen.
I’ve been desperately trying to finish Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in time for the book club discussion tonight. But despite a valiant effort during a three hour stint in the hairdresser’s on Saturday, I didn’t make the end. This is a novel whose name I’ve known for years and years but never had a clue what it was about. If you’d pressed me I would have said it was science fiction. How wrong can one get. It’s a powerful satirical novel about the impact of war on an innocent individual caught up in its snare. I’ve also started Life of Pi by Yann Martel as part of my Booker Prize challenge. This is one I’ve not been looking forward to because it features animals and I seem to have an aversion to those kinds of books (with the exception of course of Black Beauty). So far Martel is keeping my interest – maybe because I haven’t got to the bits with the animals in it yet.
I’ve just started The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. She’s someone I’ve had my eye on for a while but never got around to reading. This is set in post world war 2 Britain where a young doctor’s wife feels increasingly isolated and lonely as she tries to adjust to the realities of married life in Yorkshire. One night she finds a discarded RAF great coat; sleeping under it to keep warm she begins to dream and to remember her childhood. The book is billed as her first ghost story. No sign of any ghosts yet, just a lot of good period detail about food rationing.
I am no superwoman it is clear. Despite good intentions when I signed up for a Coursera module on Australian literature I have fallen way way behind. I even bought a few books to read along the way (Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, The Short History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey and Voss by Patrick White) but they all lie unopened. The early video lectures on differing perceptions that writers have had of the continent were interesting but then we went into some disconnected lectures on native literature. Interesting individually but I couldn’t see what point was being made other than that we should not forget that literature is not the prevue of the white settler. If I hadn’t been also taking a course on family history at the same time I would have made better progress. Memo to oneself: do one thing at a time.
It’s been a while since I did one of these posts about book related news items that I missed at the time and you may have missed also.
Since September is back to school/college time it seems the right moment to talk about a few programmes and courses offered by some of our educational institutions.
Open University: My Shakespeare
One thing I have certainly missed hearing about is a Sky Arts television documentary series called My Shakespeare in which leading actors My Shakespeare present the stories of, and the stories behind, some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In this collaboration with the Open University, Joseph Fiennes talks about Romeo and Juliet for example, while Morgan Freeman explores The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t have a Sky subscription so will not get to see any of these unfortunately but if you do have access, you can read more about the programme via the Shakespeare pages on the Open University website.
Open University: Secret World of Books
Monsieur BookerTalk stumbled across a late night BBC4 programme in which Simon Russell Beale read extracts from Hamlet. His rendition of “to be or not to be…” was apparently the best that my esteemed partner has ever heard (high praise from one who until now had considered Richard Burton’s recording as the bees knees.) It rang a vague bell and then I remembered an email from the Open University announcing this new series together with a free App. I had tried downloading the App but the remote WIFI connection was too slow so I gave up and then promptly forgot about the whole series.
It’s a series of six programmes which revisit original texts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence of some classic works of fiction including Frankenstein, Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway. Kudos to the BBC for not only including something from my home country but choosing a text that isn’t as mainstream, The Mabinogian. For those of you who are not from Wales this is a classic work of literature which consists of 11 folk tales and legends.
If you can’t get to watch the programmes in real time, they should be available on the iPlayer. There is more info about the series on the Open University page – it also gives you the option to download a free App for your mobile device and some e versions of the texts.
I’ve seen a number of comments that the App is slow to download – I just had another go and didn’t encounter any problems.
Coursera: Comic and graphic novels
This genre (or is a sub genre?) isn’t something that particularly appeals to me but they do have a huge and enthusiastic fan following. So if these kinds of literary works light your fire, you might want to sign up of a free Coursera module which discusses whether they can be considered as literary art. It’s about to start and will last for seven weeks. To register go to https://www.coursera.org/course/comics.
Hope you find something you enjoy here. Have any of you come across other interesting courses offered by universities or academic groups? If so, did you register or follow them and what did you think about them?
I enjoy those photography projects where you take a picture of the same location on the same day every month or year. So I thought I’d copy the idea and do a snapshot of what I’m reading etc on the first Sunday of each month.
So here goes with the first one…..
I have two books on the go at the moment: Keri Hulmes The Bone People which I’m reading as part of my Booker Prize project and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The latter is the next selection for our book club. I can see why it’s hugely popular and parts of it are enjoyable. I’m learning a lot about the impact of World War 2 on the Guernsey islanders that I didn’t know before but overall the book isn’t grabbing me much.
I’m playing catch up with the BBC series The Plantagenets. The first program was about the origins of the dynasty and how they grew to be rulers of a huge swathe of land from Scotland, through England and as far as the middle of France. In between laying the foundations of the British justice system and taking off for the Holy Land on crusades,they seem to have spent much of their lives fighting each other. Talk about dysfunctional families! It’s a fascinating series – you can still watch the first three episodes on BBC I Player.
For years I listened to the radio news programs on my commute to work. But I stopped that when the interviewers became more interested in their own voices than in what their interviewees had to say. So I’ve switched to podcasts and audiobooks instead. After a spate of Peter James crime fiction featuring Superintendent Roy Grace, I’ve now moved onto Christabel Kent’s A Time of Mourning which is set in Florence and just has me wishing I was strolling in those piazzas right now. I’ve also caught up with some of my favorite podcasts like The Readers.
Future Learn is running a MOOC course on Shakespeare and his world. I’ve taken about five of these MOOC courses either through Future Learn or Coursera and found the quality is very mixed. This is one of the best I’ve done so far. It’s a collaboration between the University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Straord‐Upon‐Avon and looks at the plays from a historicist perspective. We’ve covered his interest in classical stories and in war for example, reading a different play each week. This week’s featured play The Merchant of Venice discussed the theme of money and trade and how Venice could represent the way London was emerging as the centre of a global trading nation. Next week we move onto the historical plays in the Henry cycle.
I should have been writing this amid the aroma of my Christmas cake baking in the oven. But after a few hours amid the crush of festive shoppers, I decided that baking will need to wait until tomorrow. So a cup of my favourite Earl Grey tea and a slice of something creamy will have to suffice for inspiration.
I’ve been suffering from a dearth of inspiration having read three novels in close succession that were less than inspiring. The first two were from the Coursera historic fiction course. As my review indicates, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was one of the worst I have read all year. I was hoping for something more substantive but instead got another lacklustre offering in the form of Fever by Mary Beth Keane. It’s the fictionalised account of an Irish immigrant deemed responsible for multiple deaths in the New York area in the early 1900s because, although she was perfectly healthy herself, she was a carrier of typhoid. Identified as a threat to public health and quarantined for three years, Mary battled to prove her innocence. How an author could take such a strong real-life story and render from it as dull a novel as Fever, astounds me. It reads more like reportage than fiction and not even good reportage at that. Half way through I decided I’d had enough and so abandoned.
After those disappointing experiences, I was hoping that my luck would turn with the book chosen for our next book club read – John O’Farrell’s The Man who Forgot his Wife. It was not to be. It features a man who completely loses his memory and has to rebuild his life from fragments of memory which might be true but could easily be figments of his imagination. It’s funny in part but humour alone isn’t enough when the book has more than 400+ pages. I kept checking where my bookmark was and how many more pages there were left to read. Not a good sign!
I’m off for a trawl through the bookshelves in search of more meaty fare with which to sustain me through December.