Another month further into the year and time for another snapshot of my reading life. March 1 marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere and for once nature is in tune with the calendar – daffodils are in bloom in the garden though the squirrels seem to have snaffled most of the crocus bulbs I planted. Tulip leaves are also pushing up through the earth heralding the pleasure to come. My recovery from surgery is also going well – so plenty to celebrate this month.
As I expected, being unable to do much other than vegetate on the sofa while the wounds healed, meant I was able to do fair amount of reading in the past few weeks. On March 1 itself I was half way through Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. It’s the third book in the Chronicles of Barchester series and though it doesn’t have my three favourite characters from the first two – Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s Wife, Septimus Harding and the most magnificent of all, the chaplain Mr Obadiah Slope – it does have a rather delicious character in the shape of the Squire’s wife. Where the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers, focused on the dealings of the clergy, Dr Thorne takes us into the world of the gentry with their political ambitions and concerns to maintain their status in society. Dr Thorne is a book I’ve long planned to read as part of my Classics Club project and it didn’t disappoint.
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 thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I’m amazed that I’ve been able to keep to this plan – largely down to my strategy of immediately deleting from my in box any emails from publishers about new titles and from booksellers about special offers. I won An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J David Simons in a giveaway hosted by Lizzy at https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/. Lizzy’s review is here.
Then I was sorely tempted when asked if I would review The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer that was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”). It’s a historical drama combining two storylines separated by six centuries; one story is set in Cambodia in 1294 during the last days of Khmer imperial glory and the other in 1921 during the period of French colonial rule. Here is the opening paragraph:
“Farther India”, 1861 (Laos, Indochina).It was hard to believe the human body could contain so much water, and yet, there it all was. Phrai twisted the cloth and watched it plop in dull patters on the ground, the pocked earth sponging up sound as well. Sweat had been seeping out his employer for weeks, and he had been at the dying man’s side all the while, pouring fresh water back into his mouth with the devotion of a nun. Phrai imagined nearly half the man had been absorbed and squeezed from these rags, creating small pools just outside the hut. In another part of the world, that half of him would evaporate out of existence, but here it could not; the thick air held eternity at bay.
So with two additions to my collection but five read, I ended February with 311 books remaining in what I call ‘my personal library’.
The collection of owned-but-unread books might be on the downward trend but the same can’t be said for my wishlist in Goodreads. In February I added The Long Dry by Cynan Jones, I Refuse by the Norwegian author Per Petterson plus twelve titles from the Greatest Books from Wales list that I posted a few days ago. I’m hoping I can get to end of June before I start buying any of these but it’s good to dream…..
On the reading horizon…
March is Reading Ireland month, hosted by 746books.com which has given me a good impetus to dig out the Ireland-related books from my shelves. Of the titles I found I’m probably gong to begin with John Banville’s Ancient Light. After that I will see where my mood takes me – I’ve discovered that planning too far ahead doesn’t work well for me. Making a list is good fun but the minute I have to start reading it, my enthusiasm wanes. I much prefer the serendipitous approach.
This 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 Rougon–Macquart 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.”
John Banville was the surprise winner of the Booker Prize in 2005 with his lyrical novel The Sea. Literary pundits had put their money on Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George walking away with the prize or a repeat Booker success for Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go.
No-one was more surprised than the Banville at his success, particularly because he felt that two of his earlier books were more like the “middle-ground, middlebrow work” that he felt judges tended to choose. By contrast he considered The Sea to be more of an “art novel”. It was a comment which ruffled more than a few feathers among the literary elite.
Banville’s description of The Sea as an ‘art’ novel could be considered a strange term for a novel that relies on the well-used device of a character returning to a place that played a significant part in his earlier years. But that simplified version of the plot doesn’t to justice to a novel that is a richly textured and patterned meditation on the nature of memory and loss and of the bitter-sweet nature of first love.
In The Sea,the widowed art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where as a young boy on the verge of adolescence, he once spent a family holiday. It’s a trip that is at once an escape from the traumatic loss of his wife but at the same time an opportunity to confront a dramatic event that occurred during that summer seaside sojourn. The nature of that event is held back from the reader until the closing pages of the novel, not because Banville is planning a big dramatic reveal but because his real interest is the process of recollection. Morden’s odyssey into his past takes place through a series of vignettes which reveal his relationships with his father, his wife and his daughter. He recalls also the Grace family who also holidayed in the same resort and whose allure he found impossible to resist.
This is a tale that sucks you in; that takes you along meandering lanes of memory only to suddenly detour to a different time and place and then unexpectedly switch direction yet again to bring us back to the here and now. Banville has been compared to Beckett though at the 2013 Hay Festival he told the audience his favourite authors are Henry James and Georges Simenon (though not the Maigret novels he was at pains to emphasise).
Reading The Sea is a hypnotic, mesmerising experience largely due to Banville’s mastery of the atmosphere-laden sentence. The opening of the book is tantalisingly enigmatic:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.
Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.
With an opening like that, I was hooked. And I hope you will be too. This was the first Banville book I had read. I know it will not be the last.
If there are two words guaranteed to divide the world of authors, publishers and academics, they would be Literary Fiction.
The orthodox view is that literary fiction is the very highest level of artistic merit; the kind of writing that all authors really aspire to achieve. It’s meant to distinguish the truly great from the mere readable or popular kinds of books (remember the fuss over the Booker Prize in 2011 when the judges said they based their selection on readability).
Some critics in North America set the feathers flying a few years ago by daring to suggest that the idea of literary fiction had run its course, that it had become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Not so said the New York Review of Books last year – it was time that literary fiction be recognised as a genre of its own said editor Sue Halpern.
What is ‘literary fiction’? Generally it’s taken to denote a serious-minded novel of high artistic integrity in which style is more important than the actual content (maybe Will Self’s Umbrella falls into that category?); slow and thoughtful in pace allowing the characters’ inner lives and motivations become the focus. To many people that just means ‘highbrow’, maybe even ‘pretentious’ or ‘difficult’ and ‘unreadable’. But for others it means the kind of book that makes it to the short list for the Booker Prize or the work of authors who win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Who are these shining lights? Contemporary candidates from the West could include Michael Ondaatje, Iris Murdoch or Barry Unsworth plus many of the Booker prize winners. They’re all formidable writers and superb storytellers.
As of this week I am going to add another name to the list: John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize with The Sea. It’s a wonderfully lyrical narrative about a widower who returns to the location of his childhood holidays where one summer, many many years earlier something happened ( we don’t get to find out until about 10 pages from the end). It’s so good that the minute I finished it, I wanted to start all over again.
Armchair BEA 2013 opens today. A week long extravaganza for anyone who has an interest in books and reading. Last year I had absolutely no idea what those letters BEA represented (Book Expo America) And what was all that about an armchair?. I’m a little more clued up this year and ready to give the daily questions my best shot.
Day 1 is about introductions via the following questions
Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?
I’m Karen, a relative newcomer to blogging since I started this only about 15 months ago. It began when I had an idea that I would read all the Booker Prize winning novels in an attempt to discover what makes a novel a prize winner. As I wrote in my first post I think the trigger was a debate I heard on radio as I drove to work.
Where in the world are you blogging from?
My home is in Wales, a part of the UK which is unknown in many parts of the world and ends up being considered the same as England. Its a mistake which is guaranteed to get the hackles rising since we
Welsh are fiercely proud of our independence particularly on days when our national rugby team is playing against England.
This photo is taken of the coastline about a 10 minute walk from my home.
What are you currently reading?
I’m just finishing The Sea by John Banville, the novel that won him the Man Booker prize in 2005. It’s the first time I’ve read anything by him. I’m entranced by his lyrical style and wonderful ability to evoke an atmosphere of regret and longing for the past of childhood.
As a complete contrast I’m also reading Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the novel that got him imprisoned for more than a year. He was released after a campaign by Amnesty International who considered him a prisoner of conscience. He’s tipped as a strong contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.
Although I love reading and discovering what other people are reading, I also enjoy more craft based activities, especially making my own jewellery.
What literary location would you most like to visit? Why?
I’d love to see the Paris depicted in Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations. It was the first destination of her year spent travelling in Europe. I’ve visited Paris a few times but reading her experience brings a new dimension. I too want to stand in the centre of the chapel of Sainte Chapelle
… beneath the chapel’s soaring, vaulted ceiling, surrounded by towering walls of glowing stained glass, it seemed that light and glass had conspired to form a new element; one composed of ice lit from within by fire.
What is your favourite part about the book blogging community?
No surprise here because its the favourite part of so many book blogger’s experience — ‘meeting’ people from different parts of the world and discovering something of their lives through our common love of literature.
It took me years to get to the Hay Literary Festival but the wait was definitely worth it. There was always a risk that my expectations were too high but my day proved better than anything I could have imagined.
Of course the sunshine helped enormously. Hay on Wye is a delightful town at the best of times but under an almost cloudless blue sky and bedecked with banners, it fizzed with festive spirit. Everywhere you looked there was something happening – a craft fair in the market square, pop up food stalls and music in the castle grounds and some earnest discussions in the parallel philosophy festival.
This sign caught my eye… you can understand the sentiment in a town which thrives on people buying real books.
On the festival site itself, the grassy areas were packed with picnic groups and families or people lounging and reading (not a Kindle in sight!) in one of the special deck chairs; a welcome break from all that queuing at the book shop to get a personally signed copy.
But the real highlights for me were the four sessions I attended. Not a dud among them though they were vastly different in topic and style. I ‘d never expected the audiences to be so big – 700 people for Edna O’Brien; about 500 for a discussion on the experience of women in Lebanon and Egypt. Every event was a sell out apparently.
I loved the low key conversational tone of the interview with John Banville who came on stage clutching a glass of wine rather than the pint of Guinness you’d have expected from a true born Irishman. Edna O’Brien was in superb form, one moment teasing her editor who was conducting the interview; tantalising us with stories of parties involving copious amounts of champagne and film stars and the next, revealing the dark experience of her LSD therapy. And the discussion hosted by Dame Joan Bakewell introduced me to two truly remarkable women authors— Joanna Haddad from the Lebanon and Sereen El Feiki from Egypt who have both fought to be heard and to express the unthinkable in societies which place enormous pressures to conform on its women citizens.
I’ll be posting about these events separately since each speaker had so many interesting insights that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them in a general article.
Will I go back to Hay? Absolutely – and if you can’t get to this event, don’t feel too disappointed. The festival has spread its wings enormously since its first year in 1988 when it was a few people gathering in a local bookshop and a local school. Now it has events in places as far afield as Segovia, Mexico; Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya. There’s sure to be one not too far away from you…..so get booking.
Posting this early so I can set off in good time for my first ever visit to the Hay Literary Festival. A day talking about books in a town which boasts more second hand book stores than anywhere else in the world. It’s in an idyllic spot too – on the banks of the Wye River in the heart of the Golden Valley, one of the most glorious parts of Wales. Luckily the forecast is for sunny skies which will make the drive through the valley even more delightful.
There are so many sessions it’s been really tough making a choice but in the end I plumped for four,
Sex and the Citadel: Joanna Haddad and Sereen El Feiki in conversation with Joan Bakewell.
These two authors have both published novels which look at how patriarchal attitudes are entwined in all aspects of life in the Middle East. I chose this one as part of my quest to read more world literature. And also because I am a fan of Joan Bakewell who was a superb interviewer and host of some flagship cultural programs on the BBC for many years.
John Banville : the 2005 Booker Prize winner discusses obsessive young love and the power of grief as portrayed in his novels. We get to see some early clips from the forthcoming film of The Sea (his winning novel).
Edna O’Brien : the Irish-born novelist, playright and poet talks about her autobiography. She’s seen plenty of drama in her life . Her first novel The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War 2. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, causing O’Brien to leave her native land.
Google Debate: The Future of News: in a digital world of instant information, what and who is the future of news. This is a debate between senior editors from BBC World and the Daily Telegraph, an expert on China and some Google executives.
It will be a packed day but I may just be able to squeeze in some time to buy a few books….