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Classics Club Project: It’s A Wrap!

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Flush with the success of completing my Booker Prize project, I’ve now reached the finishing line on a second long-term reading project: The Classics Club.

This was a project started in August 2012 to read 50 classics of literature over the course of five years. That “deadline” came and went. As did the sixth and the seventh anniversaries. But I was determined I would have this done before the eighth anniversary rolled around.

I made it with three months to spare.

Thankfully my final book was a pleasure to read: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope which is book number four out of the six that form his Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

What else did I read as part of the project? You can see my full list of titles here as well as the books I couldn’t finish, I actually listed far more than 50 titles when the project got underway because I wanted plenty of choice. So there are another 30 books that I never got around to reading.

The books I chose were a combination of authors I’d never read previously (like

was an attempt to fill in the gaps in my reading of the great and the good from the literary world. The eagle eyed among my readers will notice that there are more than 50 titles listed here. The reason is simple: I wanted plenty of choice so I could pick a novel to suit different moods. 

Some of the authors I selected were people I have never read before such as Honore Balzac and John Steinbeck. Others were novels I had read previously but at age when I don’t think I fully understood them  (such as Mrs Dalloway). I mixed in a few favourites like George Eliot; some novels translated from their original language and some Welsh classics.

I used a very loose definition of “classic”. I didn’t take it to mean just old (though I did read a few Greek tragedies). Nor did I interpret classics as those books appearing in “xxx books you must read before you die” lists. I wanted books that had endured the passage of time; that could be considered “important” or “significant” in themselves or in terms of the author’s body of work.

So I ended up with books spread across the centuries starting from Euripedes and Medea, both believed to have been written around 431 BC. I managed one eighteenth century novel in the form of The Vicar of Wakefield and 18 novels from my favourite literary period. To my surprise the majority of books I read were from the twentieth century, starting with Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career in 1901 and ending with The Human Factor by Graham Greene in 1978.

Was it worth doing? Yes absolutely, I read some fabulous books and found some authors that I want to discover further.

Will I do it again? I know there are some members of the Classics Club that are on their second cycle. I have 30 books already identified and it wouldn’t be too hard to find another 20.

But I’m not going to commit myself at this point. You all know I don’t like projects which involve reading from lists plus I have a few other projects i’d like to complete first. So I shall pause for this year at least.

Which were my favourite books? I’ll share my list of 10 favourites and (maybe) 10 disappointments with you soon but will just leave you with my top 3 selections for now.

The 3 Favourites

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola: My love affair with Zola continued with this novel from 1877. It’s set in Paris, tracing the miserable existence of a woman who tries to make something of her life but keeps getting pulled down by a lazy, drunkard husband. Simply superb.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: A wonderful tale of a recently woman who decides, in her late 80s, to exert independence for the first time in her life.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: I read this on a flight from UK to USA and, for once, did not want the journey to come to an end. I was quite resentful when we landed and had to unbuckle before I had read the last few pages.

Would these be among your favourite “classic” reads? Are there any books you think I should add to my list if I decided to do a second round of the Classics Club? By the way if you’d like to join in with this project, just visit the blog site Classics Club via this link.

Dull. Tedious. Contrived. My 10 Least Favourite Booker Prize Winners

Having decided on my list of 10 favourite Booker Prize winning novels, it’s time to reveal the 10 books that were the least interesting, enjoyable or memorable.

The first four are easy – they are the titles that were so lacking in appeal that I couldn’t even finish reading them. The remaining six are books that either I struggled to complete or I read to the end but wondered why I bothered.

The Famished Road

Ben Okri

This was a book so bad that I couldn’t get beyond page 80. The style of the opening paragraph was a warning sign that this book would be a challenge:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In my review of The Famished Road I commented that this paragraph read like a poor pastiche of the opening of Genesis. The book went on to introduce elements of magical realism – a style I struggle with but can read if it’s well done. Such was not the case with this book however.

Okri main character is an abiku or spirit child who lives in an unnamed city which most likely is from his home country of Nigeria. It’s a book that reflects on the country’s post-colonial experience.

The book has been called a landmark text for its use of a particular kind of African  magical realism. The African traditions it describes would have made the book interesting but the text was so over-blown and confusing, I lost all patience.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1991
  • Other view/s

Personally, I’m amazed that the judges even finished the thing, let alone decided to give it the prize.

Sam Jordison, The Guardian

Okri’s tale is a beautifully rendered allegory, enriched by its African setting, of love powerful enough to defy even death and his minions.

Kirkus Reviews

A History of Seven Killings 

Marlon James

This book relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as  “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.

The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute.

Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing. I gave up after about 120 pages.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2015
  • Other view/s

It would be a challenge to keep faith with so many tumultuously occupied characters even if they were not being systematically divested of sympathetic qualities; as it is, the negativity becomes a slog.

Hannah McGill, The independent

It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come”, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner…epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.’

New York Times

This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

Michael Wood, Chair of Booker Prize judges

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson

What a dreary book this turned out to be. So dreary I gave up on it around the 150 page mark.

The narrative revolves around Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that attract only the dedicated few listeners. When his star faded he began working as a celebrity lookalike.

Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish. In essence the novel deals with his obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc.

This is a novel which has one idea and constantly nibbles away at it without ever getting any further forward. I was desperate for something – anything – to happen but gave up the hope that it ever would.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2010
  • Other view/s

… full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.

Edward Docx, The Guardian

… very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle.

Chair of judges, Sir Andrew Motion

 G

John Berger

I had never heard of this book when I started to read it in 2018. It’s probably one of the lesser-known Booker Prize winners. It will remain an unknown to me since I found I disliked it so much I simply could not get far into the narrative.

Set in pre-First World War Europe, the novel follows the escapades of G, an offspring of an Italian merchant. Essentially he’s a Cassanova type figure whose sexual liaisons and ‘conquests’ we are meant to find interesting.

They were not. The Kirkus reviewer (see quote below) seemed to suggest that this is my fault because I am a “common reader” unable to appreciate the subtleties of the book. Sounds a bit of a harsh judgement, and bordering on elitism.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1972
  • Other view/s

Ultimately (and ignoring the common reader whom it will defeat) it is an arresting, inordinately vital, impersonal, and remarkable work.

Kirkus Review

… if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G.

Lisa, ANZLitLovers

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

I’m probably wading into controversial waters by including Salman Rushdie’s novel in my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. It not only won the prize in 1981, it was named the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize and again in 2003 for the 40th anniversary.

The book falls into the category for me of books that I admire but do not enjoy. There was a huge amount to admire – the ingenuity of a central character with special powers born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India is born. Then there’s the scale – more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan. And lastly, the blend of styles, comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

It was overpowering at times and I kept losing track of where I was in the narrative.

Maybe at a different time this novel would have gelled more with me. It certainly has a large fan club since it twice topped the public poll in those Booker of Booker award.

  • Won the Booker Prize in 1981
  • Other view/s

… conveyed in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic. A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture.

The Guardian

… we can celebrate Midnight’s Children as an English novel: a brilliant and endearing one, the latest of India’s many contributions to English fiction, and the most remarkable of them all.

London Review of Books

Saville

David Storey

My review of Saville described it as a “jaw-droppingly tedious tale” that I was glad to finish.

The premise for the novel sounded promising: it’s a tale of a boy who tries to rise above his roots in a South Yorkshire mining community. It being 1930s Britain the most pressing consideration is how to keep his parents and brothers above the poverty line. Plenty of subject matter for a hard hitting novel but instead the potential was lost by over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1976
  • Other view/s

His [Saville’s father] speech may be weighed down by unconvincing Yorkshire-isms, but Storey is still able to show us his heart. In short, he writes wonderfully far more often than he writes badly.

The Guardian

The Line Of Beauty

Alun Hollinghurst

To reach the end of The Line of Beauty you have to read a lot about sex, drugs and champagne- fuelled parties.

It’s a novel set in Britain in the 1980s; the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Into this world steps Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background. He moves into the house of an up and coming MP, giving him the ability to mingle with aristocrats and politicians. It’s not all hedonistic fun however, this is the period when HIV/AIDS began to make its presence felt.

The first half of the novel rambles along through a series of country house parties and assignations with sexual partners in parks. It wasn’t until the second half when Nick’s ex lover is diagnosed as HIV positive, that it perked up. But it was too little, too late.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2004
  • Other view/s

… brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch …

The Independent

If Nick’s aesthetic detachment occasionally seems to reduce the novel’s emotional stakes, it nonetheless fuels Hollinghurst’s sumptuous writing and his bravura evocation of an entire era.

The New Yorker

Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald

An indication of how little an impression this book made upon me, is that I remember absolutely nothing about the plot. All I recall is that it features a set of characters who live in houseboats on The Thames. I have a vague feeling that at some point there is a fire on board one of these dwellings. I loved the cover artwork of the edition I had but the contents left me underwhelmed.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1979
  • Other view/s

Fitzgerald is adept at evoking the atmosphere of late 1960s London with rich period detail but beyond this the book feels slight and inconclusive, meandering along with only the sketchiest plot.

The Guardian

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings.

Jacqui: JacquiWine’s Journal

Elected Member

Bernice Rubens

The only book by an author from Wales to have won the Booker Prize, The Elected Member is a book that began well.

Its focus is on a seemingly respectable Jewish family whose beloved son succumbs to the effects of drug addiction. There is one particularly memorable scene where he suffers delusions caused by withdrawal from the drugs and imagines there are silver creatures climbing all over his bedroom.

If the book had maintained the same quality it would not be on my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. Unfortunately the novel went down hill and ended in a far too neat conclusion. .

  • Won Booker Prize in 1970
  • Other view/s

The Elected Member is a worthy winner and a brave choice for the Booker prize, but not a masterpiece. It’s probably best summed up by the author herself, and her typically terse assessment of her own writing: “Better than most, not as good as some.

The Guardian

Something To Answer For

P H Newby

This was the first book to win a Booker Prize. It was up against strong competition from Iris Murdoch (The Nice and the Good) and Muriel Spark (The Public Image). I find it interesting that both those contenders are authors who are still being read today but the winner remains largely unknown.

It’s a very odd book because you don’t really know whether what you are reading can be trusted. We can say with certainty that it’s set in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez Crisis. But even the main character doesn’t know what’s happening to him when he travels there to attend a funeral. He’s not even sure he knows his true name.

Beyond some episodes. of black humour, I didn’t find much in this novel to keep me entertained.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1969
  • Other view/s

It’s beautifully written, shot through with crisp, mordant wit, and Newby plays out his narrative with consummate skill to ensure it baffles and intrigues, leaving the readers hooked and thrashing about for meaning, desperate for him to reel things in.

The Guardian

Booker Prize Project: Done And Dusted At Last

Photo credit: Unplash.com

I thought it would take me two years at most. My project to read all the Booker Prize winners actually ended up taking eight years. 

If this had been a government-funded and managed project, I’d be basking in congratulations for coming in only six years behind schedule. Instead I’m just relieved and thankful that I did make it to the finishing line.

It wasn’t until I was deep into the project that the magnitude of what I was seeking to do became apparent.

Between 1969 when the prize was inaugurated, and 2015, which I decided would be my cut off year, there were fifty winning novels (in 2010 the Lost Booker Prize was awarded in addition to the annual prize). Of those, up the start of the project I had read just four Booker winning books. 

That left a total of 134,400 pages left for me to read spread among 44 different authors (some authors won the prize more than once). 

A tall order but I made it. And now I’ve crossed that finishing line it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of the experience. 

The Lows

Obviously one “low” is that it took me significantly longer than anticipated to finish the project. It never at any time felt like one of those chores that you keep deferring but I got distracted because I discovered so many other books that appealed more at the time. For that I “blame” all you bloggers who kept enticing me with non Booker prize books. Shame on you….

But honestly I should have known from the start that I am not the kind of person that sets a goal or comes up with a project and is able to stick to it utterly and completely. I have a butterfly mind and am easily distracted. So it was a bit of a stupid idea really to think that I would read Booker winners exclusively for any length of time.

I embarked on this project having heard a radio debate about the merits (or otherwise) of the winner that had just been announced. It got me thinking about what made some books prize-worthy and others popular but not lauded for their literary merit.

In the post launching the project I mused:

Would I get a better understanding of why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way?  Were there some novels that were considered wonderful and exceptional at the time – but have not proved enduring?

The second question proved much easier to answer than the first.

There are definitely some winners that have not stood the test of time. The very first winner in fact falls into that category.

Front cover in orange with text  Something To Answer For by P H Newby, winner of the first Booker Prize

Something to Answer For by P.H Newby was the first book I tackled in my project. I found it a baffling tale of a man in Port Said at the time of the Suez Crisis. It’s still in print but not widely read. Some of the other earlier winners like Holiday by Stanley Middleton, the winner in 1974, have suffered a similar fate.

Spotting A Prize Winner – An Impossible Task?

Did I get a better understanding  why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way? Not at all. I know which winners I thought deserved the prize but there were plenty of others that I wouldn’t have considered remarkable in any way.

It didn’t help that the judges themselves were not clear.

In 2011 the judges announced they wanted books that had a high ‘readability’ factor. But there was such a backlash to their pronouncement (they were accused of “dumbing down”) that the following year they switched to emphasising “re-readability.” The 2020 award was mired in further controversy when the judges broke their own rules and seemed to award the prize to Margaret Attwood for her body of work rather than for the submitted novel, The Testaments.

If anything, my project has led me to believe that the “best book” does not always walk off with the prize in competitions. There’s no accurate way of measuring artistic quality or weighing up the merits of books across vastly different genres. One book wins because the judgement process is skewed towards consensus. The most powerful and persuasive voices prevail. Quieter voices arguing in favour of an entirely different choice, are drowned out. On a different day with a different set of judges, the result could have been entirely different.

The Highs

Though I didn’t end up with a clear answer to my initial question, I don’t regret undertaking this project.

I read many books I would never have read otherwise. A few, like The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje were stunning.

Front cover of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatjee, winner of the Booker Prize

I discovered authors I had never read previously. Some of them, especially Anne Enright, J G Farrell and Peter Carey, are people whose work I want to read more extensively.

Admittedly there were some duds. But out of 46 books there were only four where I failed completely. Despite my best efforts, I simply couldn’t finish The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; How Late It Was How Late by James Kellman and The Famished Road by Ben Okri. 

When I launched the project I called it “a mad idea.” Now I’ve reached the end I don’t think it was mad at all.

Would I do it again but with a different prize? At the moment the answer is a resounding no. But ask me again in a year from now and you might get a different answer. See I told you I have a butterfly mind and can’t stick with anything for very long!

2020: Why It’s Time For New Directions

The year is barely a week old and I’m already feeling I’m in catch up mode. I meant to share my 2020 plans well before now but it’s taken me until today to work out what exactly I want to focus on this year.

I’ve spent the last few days soul searching as well as reflecting on my experience over the last few years when I set specific goals for reading and blogging. And I’ve come to a few conclusions which are going to influence what I do this year.

The End of Challenges

The biggest decision is to stop doing reading challenges that involve making lists of titles to read. I love the process of creating the list but as soon as that’s done, and it’s time to actually read those chosen books, my interest in them completely fades away. Having a list to work through takes away the element of freedom.

Instead of being able to choose a book at random from my ‘owned but unread’ shelves or delve into something that caught my eye in the library, I’m ‘having’ to read one of the titles on my list. Just so that I can make some inroads into that challenge.

It’s why I’ve never completed a #20booksofsummer project. Even reducing the number to 15 this year didn’t work (though I came close). It’s also why it’s taken me longer than the target 5 years to get through the Classics Challenge and why, unbelievably, my Booker Prize project is unfinished seven years after it began.

Away With Lists

Lists are clearly not my thing. Neither are challenges that require me to read specific categories of books or numbers of books within a specified time period. Some of those I’ve been undertaking in recent years, like the Booker Prize project have been entirely self imposed. So I have only myself to blame for that!

There’s nothing wrong with the challenges themselves. Plenty of other bloggers and readers find them enjoyable and rewarding and, amazingly, have the ability to cope with several at the same time. It’s not the challenge that’s the issue; it’s me.

2020 will therefore be a year without challenges. I’ll finish the ones I’ve already started – I’ve come so far with most of them that it would be silly to stop now – but I won’t go looking for anything new. I want a year of relaxed, stress-free reading.

I’ve Started So I’ll Finish

Booker Prize Project: One more title to go and then I’ll have read (or attempted to read) every winner from 1969 to 2015. That’s 50 winners in total. Once I’ve read How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, I’ll be done. I don’t regret having spent time with the Booker Prize but my interest in it as a literary prize has seriously waned in the last few years so I won’t be committing myself to reading any of the post 2015 winners.

Classics Club challenge: I embarked on this in November 2012. According to the ‘rules’ I was supposed to have read 50 books from my list by November 2017. Well, it’s now more than 2 years later and I still have three titles yet to go. I’m using the latest Classics Club spin to give me a nudge towards the finishing line. I still have books on my original list that I haven’t read. I might get to them over time or I might not.

World of Literature Project: Another self-imposed challenge to read books by authors from 50 different countries within 5 years. I’m two years over the target date with 9 countries still to go. No reason why I shouldn’t find those remaining countries before the year is over. I’m not abandoning my interest in reading translated fiction and fiction from around the world – just taking away the pressure of specific goals.

New Directions

The one aspect of challenges I do enjoy is the camaraderie and feeling of connection to other bloggers. I don’t want to lose that – the social element of blogging is by far the thing that keeps me going. Without it, blogging would be just a form of vanity publishing.

Instead of year long or multi year challenges I’m going to switch my focus to small events; the kind that last just for a week or a few months.. There are countless numbers of these around so I’m going to have to be selective otherwise I’ll end up in the same rabbit hole I’ve been in before via challenges.

I’ll be joining events if and only if they take my fancy and I can do them without a reading list in sight.

Reading Events On the Horizon

There are already a few events that are calling to me.

Japan Literature Challenge, hosted by dolcebellezza is now in its 13th incarnation. It involves just reading books by Japanese authors between January and end of March. It’s a good opportunity to revisit some of the authors whose books I already own.

Paula at Book Jotter will be hosting the Wales Readathon throughout March. This will be the second year for the event and of course I have to support anything which promotes literature from my home country.

Unfortunately that readathon coincides with Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books so I might have to limit myself to just one book from Ireland. I’ll at least feel that I’ll have joined in the buzz. That’s what is so great about these short events – you can just dip in like this without any obligations to do much more.

Finally, in April, Simon and Karen will be hosting the 1920 reading club; a week long celebration of fiction, non-fiction, poetry published 100 years ago.

And that’s more than enough for me to be getting on with. What happens after April I’ll decide further down the road.

Will You Be Joining Me? Have you made any plans yet for 2020? Do they include challenges or do you prefer more free-form reading? Do post a comment below to let me know.

The Challenge of Challenges

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

sundaysalonThat comment by Douglas Adams (the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) sums up my experience with book reading challenges so far.

I like the idea of many of the challenges dreamed up by various bloggers, get enthusiastic about signing up for them and love the buzz of talking to people about them. But actually doing them; well that’s another story.  Do you ever have that feeling of running in race but each time you can see the finishing line, someone moves it? That’s how I felt so many times in 2013.

Of course, it was my own fault for taking on more projects than I really have the capacity for given that I do work full time. But more of an issue I’ve come to realise, is that having multiple challenges doesn’t actually add to the enjoyment of reading for me —in fact it takes the fun out of reading. I know that’s not the case for many other bloggers, some of them seem to thrive on challenges; the more the merrier. But for me, the more challenges I took on the more I began to feel I was reading to order instead of reading as my mood took me.

Rather than just being able to pick up a book because I thought it suited my mood at the time, I choose my next read based purely on the fact it was on the list for such and such a challenge and I really need to make more progress there. So reading became more and more of a guilt trip than an enjoyable experience.

And now we are at the time of the year where bloggers everywhere are starting up their 2014 challenges and sharing reading goals for the year ahead. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a newsfeed alert a new challenge. And some of them are so tempting especially the ones that focus on reading novels from different parts of the world.

But after much pontification, deliberation and debate I’ve decided that 2014 will be a year free of challenges. Free of goals. Free of reading resolutions.  I know I’ll still be reading classics, I’ll still be reading Booker winners and I’ll still be reading world literature. But I’ll be doing them without the pressure of any deadlines or goals. I’m simply going to read what I want and when I want. And if that involves digressions and diversions, that will be just fine with me.

Anyone else suffering this feeling of challenge fatigue? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re planning to deal with this situation.

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