Blog Archives

Forgotten Books

One of the comments made frequently by reviewers is how a particular book lingered with them long after they reached the final page. I’ve certainly had that experience with a few novels (Germinal, Petals of Blood, Crime and Punishment, The Heart of the Matter come to mind as prime examples).

Most novels for me however are more transitory experiences. I enjoy them at the time and since the general sensation of pleasure does remain, I am glad to have read them. Some I might even re-read at some point. But I don’t continue to think deeply about them in terms of their message or theme for much longer than that immediate experience.

And then there are those that I cannot honestly recall ever having read. I only realise the fact when I open it again or find it at the back of the shelves. They’re not awful otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered keeping them. They’re just things I allowed to pass before my eyes in a sense, something that whiled away the time but never really engaged my brain beyond the superficial level.

The ObservationsI came across one of these yesterday while doing a bit of a clean up of the bookshelf and desperately hoping to find some gaps so I could fit in my new purchases. It was The Observations by Jane Harris.   Instantly I recalled that I had planned to read this last year but never got around to it. I was just putting back on the shelf when a moment of doubt began creeping in. I read the synopsis on the back. It definitely sounded familiar. But then that might just have been because I’ve looked at it many many times in the year or so since it first came into the house (deciding each time that I wasn’t in the mood). I started flicking through the pages, skim reading a paragraph here and there. It didn’t take long before reality sunk in. I have indeed already read this.

But when and where was another puzzle.  Until I started this blog I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. A quick search revealed that I was reading it on November 1 last year, finding it “a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. I must have finished it otherwise I wouldn’t still have in my possession but I can’t have rated it highly because I never wrote a full review. Clearly it didn’t make of an impact on me. In fact if someone asked me what it’s about I would struggle to say more than it’s about a maid, a mistress who makes very odd requests and the suspicious death of a previous servant. The rest is blank shall we say.

I know this isn’t an isolated example of a book that I’ve forgotten I ever read. I used to read lots of crime fiction and frequently took books home from the library only to realise half way through that the plot sounded rather familiar.

If my memory is this bad, I have no hope of emulating the reader who has used her Goodreads account to record every book she can remember reading, including those from her childhood. It’s taken her four years to get to 1,000 books. She clearly has a much better memory than I do – I think I would struggle to get even half way to that number. I certainly don’t remember everything I read as a child.

The article she wrote for The Guardian doesn’t say how she managed this extraordinary feat. The quickest route would be to look up the various category lists or author lists, scan them and add titles to your ‘read’ shelf. But she clearly went beyond that since she also says in her article that of the 1,000 she enjoyed only about 700. Which means that it wasn’t a case of recognising a cover and thinking ‘oh i read that one’ but actually recalling what her reaction was.

Just to put this into perspective. I have 200 books on my “Read” shelf at Goodreads  which is only a small fraction of what I’ve read throughout my life.  But knowing which books I’ve left off my list is tough. I know for example that I’ve read a lot of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine but looking at the titles although they are familiar I can’t be sure thats because I read them or have just seen them in book shops so often. Even when I know for sure I read a particular title, trying to recall my level of enjoyment is a further challenge particularly given Goodreads’ five point scoring system.  I enjoyed Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice but would they both score a five or was one better than the other?. I have no idea. It’s enough of a problem trying to deal with the last 40 years of reading, going back into childhood would for me be nigh on impossible.

Am I a lone voice here with my memory deficiency? How much do you recall of what you read? Do you have the same issues with forgotten books??

Snapshot: November 2014

Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

The ObservationsI started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki.  Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.

Listening

Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale,  a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.

Watching

Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).

I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.

It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.

A place in the case: cast your vote

I’m off on holiday to the Basque region of northern Spain next week and, as usual, the biggest challenge is not deciding what clothes to take, but what books will accompany me on the trip. I’m certainly not short of choices. Although my TBR mountain has shrunk a little, I still have well over 100 novels and non fiction books yet to read.

I started thinking about my holiday reading last night and came to a fairly rapid decision that Javier Marías’ murder mystery The Infatuations would certainly go in the case. I  like to read something by an author from the country I’m visiting and the Guardian’s description of this as “an instant Spanish classic” sold it for me. I just need one other ‘real’ book (I’m taking my Kindle so I can finish Niall Williams’ History of the Rain) but I’ve changed my mind four times already. Just when I thought I’d come close to making the decision (Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, or  Angel’s Game, the follow up to Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon), I found a copy of The Observations by Jane Harris at the back of the shelf. I wasn’t as wowed by her earlier novel Gillespie & I as many other readers seemed to be so I always meant to give her another chance. Onto the pile she went. But which to remove??

The Observations

Does she deserve a place in my suitcase?

Decisions, decisions, always too many of these. Am I just being ultra indecisive or is this a common issue with book lovers??

I thought about leaving all the shortlisted books together in a dark room overnight so they could fight it out amongst themselves. But then I decided a better idea would be to get you to vote. So can you help me decide which to take:

The Observations by Jane Harris OR

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters OR

Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon OR

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

The good news is that while I’ve been procrastinating I was able to do a bit of a purge of the TBR. Gone to a good home (i.e., my mum) is Victoria Hislop’s The Thread which was a Christmas present from maybe 4 years ago. Her first novel The Island was ok but 20 pages into this one and I just couldn’t get interested. Out has also gone Dublinesque by Enrique Villa Matas which I started reading in March but stopped at around page 100. Quite a number of people commented when they heard I was struggling that they really enjoyed it so I kept it intending to give it another go. But it’s still not calling to me so off to the charity shop it’s gone. Small chinks I know but it’s a start….

 

 

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

I picked up Gillespie and I by Jane Harris in an airport bookshop hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight.  It seemed it would tick all the boxes – historical setting, a sense of mystery and it came from the pen of an author whose name I kept hearing though I had never read nothing by Jane Harris myself.

The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie – a talented artist who we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family. Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.

The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about  houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground.  Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.

The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter is a master of deception. She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to  tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie and set the record straight about the events in which she was enmeshed as a young woman. But her approach is somewhat elliptical. She makes frequent dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed.  “If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on. Harriet Baxter is such a master of hints and suggestions however that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.

If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep be engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.

Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she leaves me to work out the truth.

Footnote: Gillespie and I was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012. Read more reviews about Orange Prize winners and contenders at the Orange Prize Project blog

%d bloggers like this: