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Six Degrees from boxing to murder

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.

This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.

But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.

The-Elected-MemberThe Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia. 

Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.

Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton. 

holidayMiddleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.

Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage.  Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.

LarkinlandMention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper.  Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.

paying_guestsMiss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.

In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests,  we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances.  But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.

exposureThe Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences. 

For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy.  In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.

Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.

La bete humaineLet’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions,   – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.

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 …..

 

October 2017 Snapshot

October snapshot (1)Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?

 Reading now

Vernon_god_little I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003.  This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.

By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted  by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife.  Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.

My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September:  The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with  Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!

Watching:  I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.

Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.  I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Book series on my radar

This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.”  This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.

Current Series Reading

L'AssommoirThe Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment.  So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog  created by Lisa and Dagny.

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeChronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website

great-reckoning

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends.  I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do.  You can find more about Louise Penny at her website

Series I may not finish

LamentationsThe Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)

Future Series to Read

Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles

strangers and brothers

Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery.  All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

Looking ahead to 2017

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and the Bookish asks for 10 books I’m most looking forward to in the first half of 2017.

Since I am planning to put a temporary halt on my book buying habit for those months, (out of necessity) the books I am looking forward to reading all come from my TBR.

In no particular order here is a selection.

1. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
2. Border Country by Raymond Williams
3. A tale for the time Being- Ruth Ozeki
4. The Murder of Halland, Pia Jul
5. The Kill, Emile Zola
6. The Cheltenham Square Murder, John Bude
7. Snow Country, Yasunari Kawabata
8. A Brief history of Seven Killings, Marlon James
9. True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Cary
10. Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth

As you can see this is a mixture of Booker prize winners ( I am determined to finish this project!) and some novels in translation. I’ve also given myself an indulgence in the form of The Cheltenham Square Murder. The Kill is the second in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series which is another little project of mine. I bet few – if any of you – will recognise the second book on my list…. Border Country is by a Welsh author who when he wasn’t writing fiction was one of the leading literary academics in the 1970s and 80s.Among his most important  academic works is The Country and The City  in which he used alternating chapters on literature and social history to consider perceptions of rural and urban life. Border Country  was first published in 1960, then re-issued in 2005 as one of the first group of titles in the Library of Wales series, having been out of print for several years.

Those are the books on my radar screen. How does your wishlist for next year look?

Day 3 of #12Days of Christmas book game

3-french-hens

 

On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French Hens

Day 3 of the 12 Days of Christmas game and giveaway.

Our task today is to come up with book titles that match the third line of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. This means yet more birds but hopefully slightly easier than day 2. Remember you can try to stick to the prompt of ‘french hens’  for titles of books or authors (??) or cover images though other than a cookery book I’d be struggling with this. OR you can go off piste and be creative.

Booker Talk Titles for Day 3

I failed even more miserably with French Hens than with yesterday’s prompt of turtle doves, so I have had to think more broadly. I don’tt know that these qualify as hens since the authors are not all female, but here are three French titles from my TBR list.

The Kill by Emile Zola: I became enamoured with Zola when I read Germinal so have been slowly reading other titles from the Rougon-Marquet series. It’s a long term project since there are twenty books in the cycle. Here’s the status of my Zola project so far.  I’ve picked The Kill (in French this book is known as La Curée) because it’s book number 2 in the series. Apparently this is a different kettle of fish to the predecessor  La Fortune des Rougon that I read last year – The Kill is a study of the next generation of the Rougon family and the wealth they acquire but it also a plot involving sexual and political intrigue.

Candide by Voltaire:  I’ve never read anything by Voltaire so when I saw this – the only title of his I’ve heard of – in a secondhand charity shop I snapped it up but in three years I’ve never felt compelled to open it. All I know is that its a satire first published in 1759 which features the young man, Candide, who lives sheltered life in which he is indoctrinated by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. This lifestyle comes to an abrupt end and Candide then begins a painful process of disillusionment. The philosophical content is putting me off rather – have any of you read it? If so, would you recommend it?

My third title is another classic – this time by Balzac who I read for the first time in 2015 and loved. La Cousine Bette. This is an 1846 novel set in Paris which tells the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots the destruction of her extended family.  The book is part of the Scènes de la vie parisienne section of Balzac’s novel sequence La Comédie humaine (“The Human Comedy”).

Now over to you – here’s How to Play:

Come up with book titles or book images or anything book related (could be the name of a location mentioned in the book or a character) that matches with either ‘French’ or ‘Hens’ or both if you are feeling adventurous. Let’s see how creative you can be. I’m looking ideally for 3 titles/images etc . You can mix and match your nominations.

Put your titles into the comments field of that day’s post. Don’t just give me the name since you could easily get that from a Google search – tell us something about the book itself. Why did you choose these titles – are they from your TBR or ones you’ve seen mentioned on a blog. Please try not to just use lists from Goodreads etc.

Feel free to blog about this on your own site or via Twitter using the #12days hashtag

The Giveaway

There’s an incentive to play along with this which is a giveaway of a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository

To participate, your list of books must be in the comments field by 10pm GMT/5pm Eastern Standard Time on Sunday Dec 4.

Day by Day Prompts

Day 1:   Partridge in a Pear Tree
Day 2:   Turtle Doves
Day 3:    French Hens
Day 4:   Calling Birds
Day 5:    Gold Rings
Day 6:   Geese a-Laying
Day 7:   Swans a-Swimming
Day 8:   Maids a-Milking
Day 9:   Ladies Dancing
Day 10:  Lords a-Leaping
Day 11:   Pipers Piping
Day 12:   Drummers Drumming

Rules of the Game

1.Each day a post will go live on booker talk.com matched to the task for that day. All you to do is post a comment with your list of books on the page

2. Each day try to come up with 3 titles. No need to think of 11 books featuring pipers or eight with maids in them. This is meant to be fun not mission impossible…..

3. Participants are encouraged to be creative with the names of titles matching each day. But the books do need to be in existence – no scope here for making up your own titles.

4. The number of contributions per person will be totalled and the one with the highest number will win the prize. So if you post three titles for day 6 and 5 on day 11, that gives a total of 8 points.

5. Contributions should be entered on the page within the time limit stated each day – typically I will give 48 hours between the time I post the day’s challenge and when comments will be closed.

6. You don’t need to play every day in order to be entered for the prize. Some days will be easier than others – and anyway you have all that shopping and packing still to do

7. There is only one prize – available internationally. The Prize winner will be announced on the blog around about the 15th of December.

6. The prize is that you get to choose a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository that I will arrange to ship to you. This will probably not arrive until next year given the last postage dates for international mail.

 

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