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10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

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.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.

10 books growing old on my ‘to read’ list

This week’s topic in the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by  The Broke and the Bookish  is a free choice. Since I have been spending a few hours today clearing up the spreadsheet I used to keep track of all the books I own but have not yet read, I thought I’d share the ten titles that are growing beards because they’ve been on my shelf so long.

Riddle of the Sands:  1903 novel by  Erskine Childers that I’ve had since the late 1970s. I bought it at a time when I was reading some of John Le Carre’s fiction and heard that his potrayal of the world of spies was influenced by the realistic detail found in Childers’ novel. I’ve tried to read it a few times but never got much further than chapter 2 – I was irritated by the amount of detail about sailing.

devil white city-1Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: bought in 2011 in Chicago airport on the recommendation of the assistant. Opened it just after take off to discover it was a non fiction account of how two men created the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. A lesson here – don’t buy a book when you’re in a desperate hurry.

Contested Will by James Shapiro: Also acquired in 2011, this time as a birthday gift I think. Shapiro revisits the debate about who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, assessing the various conspiracy theories and the list of people variously named as the real author. It’s a follow up to his book 1599 which  is a very readable study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth: yes I know this is considered to be one of the ‘great American novels’ but I’ve not read it. Come to think of it I don’t believe I’ve read anything by Roth. Looks like I bought it in 1998 presumably after I’d seen a lot of commentary about it since it was published the previous year.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins. My copy is a second hand edition that came into my house after September 2000. I know this because it has a message (with a date) on the flyleaf which makes it clear this  was a birthday gift for someone called Cath. I’ve read all the major novels by Collins and a few of the minor ones (sad to say he wrote some duds) – this one seems to have divided opinions. T.S Eliot said it was melodrama and nothing more but other critics have found

a monster calls-1A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This was given to me as a Christmas gift in 2011, the year it was published. I’d read an interview with the illustrator in which he explained how he approached the tricky task of depicting a monster without scaring the hell out of young readers. The examples accompanying the article were superb so I wanted the book just for that reason.

Ethan Frome  by Edith Wharton. This is a slim novella so I don’t even have the excuse that it’s a chunky book.

George Eliot , The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes: this is a hard-backed copy that came from a sale at my local library. It’s largely a biography but also includes some analysis of her major works.

The Comedians by Graham Greene. One of the few Greene novels I haven’t read.

And the prize for the oldest of them goes to….

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  How could I have completed an English literature degree programme without having read this landmark text? Wouldn’t you have thought it would be required reading especially since Woolf was one of the authors we studied? Maybe that tells you something about the nature of literature studies in the 1970s?? I bought a copy anyway, put it in a prominent place on a shelf in my college room so I could impress my visitors. And on a shelf it has stayed all these years.

8 ways to turn me off a book

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday gives me a chance to offload about the things that deter me from reading a particular book. Here in no particular order are some generalities about the items that make me not want to read a book. The more numerically inclined readers of this post will note that I didn’t make it to 10 – I found as I was preparing this list that I don’t have anywhere near that many ‘no-go’ areas.

zombies1. The book features or even mentions zombies. The current mania among teenagers and young adults for the fictional undead leaves me cold.

2. It’s about a circus or magicians. I’m not keen on the idea of entertainment that involves wild animals and magic leaves me rather cold. I can’t say these features in a book would make it an absolute no-no but the book would have to tick many other boxes to persuade me to take an interest. Hence why I never read The Night Circus.

3. Man (Un)Appeal: In other words the cover depicts a guy stripped to his waist and showing off rippling muscles and a six-pack. I don’t even need the playerto read the blurb to know this is absolutely the kind of book I hate. Have you seen these guys in the gym – they’re the ones who are always preening themselves in the mirror. Pity the girl or boy who falls for one of these peacocks.

4. Overtly religious themes: I appreciate these are important to some readers but they hold no interest for me.

5. Stickers on books are a pet peeve of mine. I’ll happily buy from the ‘3 for the price of 2’ or ‘buy one get the second half price’ table but I can do without the horrible promotional sticker advertising my thriftiness to all and sundry. I try to avoid them wherever possible but sometimes that’s the only edition available and then I’m left with the tough task of trying to remove the sticker. I don’t know what glue the printers use but it’s tenacious stuff – it comes off in tiny scraps, does serious damage to your nails and even then you’re left with a nasty residual sticky patch on the cover.

6. Gratuitous sadistic/masochistic violence: reading some kinds of crime thrillers invariably means you’re confronted with a certain degree of violence. If it’s essential for the plot or the theme I can tolerate a certain amount but it’s the books that deliberately set out to portray extreme violence that I never want to read (step forward Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk)

7. Cliched romance. The covers of these kinds of book always give the game away. pastel coverThey typically use pastel shades on the cover and a soft focus image of a woman staring moodily into the distance or a girl/boy looking adoringly into each others eyes. Yuk…..


8. Bad writing:
Of my 8 deterrent factors, this is the only one  guaranteed to make me put the book down. I can tolerate a certain level of romance or violence; I will read about a religious belief as long as the author isn’t proselytizing and will even manage to read a book bearing one of the much-hated sticky labels. But bad writing is a factor I cannot tolerate. I usually skim a few pages of any book before I hand over my cash just to get a feeling for the style. Usually its the first page I look at and then something at random in the middle. If I find an abundance of cliches or unecessary adjectives, tired descriptions or deliberately ‘literary’ names for characters I’ll probably put it down again. Easier to do it a bricks and mortar shop than on line which is how I still make mistakes with some purchases.

10 books for time-pressured readers

Short reads Some occasions cry out  for a short (ish) book. You may have just finished a 600 pager and want a change of pace. Or you might be about to head off for a weekend break and really don’t want to lug that heavy tome with you. Speaking of weight, the measly baggage allowances set by low cost airlines almost force you down the path of lighter (ie shorter) reading material.

So for those occasions here are some short reading options – I’m reluctant to call them quick reads because that implies lightweight content. In fact these are all novels that should get you thinking…

All the links take you to my reviews.

 

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata: An enigmatic, rather bleak, tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha.

 

The Many by Wyl Menmuir: Another enigmatic story, this time set in a fishing village in Cornwall, UK that is contending with heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted its fishing grounds.

 

Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This is a touching novella about a young couple of newlyweds who arrive at a coastal hotel. They want their wedding night to be perfect but a problem arises which threatens their future.

Of Mice and Men by  John Steinbeck: How is it possible for a book of little more than 100 pages to contain so much depth? Yet Steinbeck does it with this parable about people  who are life’s losers yet never relinquish their hopes and ambitions for a better life.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul: From Denmark comes a crime story that confounds most of the conventions of that genre. Yes it has a murder and a detective but the discovery of the killer’s identity isn’t really the point of this novel. It’s more about the sense of loss and feelings of regret about failed relationships triggered by the murder.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: In a harsh Finnish winter, a mother and her two children try to walk to St Petersburg in search of bread. It’s their only hope of avoiding death through starvation.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: An odd little tale of a friendship between a Professor of mathematics who has severe memory problems, the woman sent to look after him and her son.

 

Disgrace by J, M Coetzee: A Booker-award winner set in post-apartheid South Africa that raises questions about sexual predatory behaviour, denouncement and reconciliation.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb:  A young translator from Belgium falls foul of cultural expectations when she begins working for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation run on strictly hierarchical lines.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thierault: This is a lightly plotted story of a postman who falls in love with a young teacher in Guadeloupe, a woman he knows only via her letters and poems.

 

 

Favourite Book Audio Programmes

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Tuesday topic looks at the world of audio. We’ve moved a long way forward in delivering books and other materials in formats other than print or digital. Remember when if you wanted to listen to music or a book on audio you had just the one option of cassette tapes? They were light so easily portable but guaranteed to jam at the most inappropriate moment. To reduce this involved getting a pencil, sticking it into the one wheel while  and trying to unravel the crinkled tape while simultaneously holding the other  wheel stationery. jIt also includes podcasts. CDs have no such issues except they do skip and to listen to a whole book requires multiple changes of discs that are not that convenient to carry around in the gym or on a walk. Podcasts have been my saviour on many a long journey so here’s a  very short list of ones I listen to regularly or find useful resources.

  1. The Readers – a book based banter podcast with Simon and Thomas. Most of you already know this and follow it. It’s a good blend of recommendations on what’s about to be published or just published, general reading topics like how to find more time to read or what to take on your holidays plus you get insight in the reading habits of the two hosts. Plenty of good humoured banter and misunderstandings between the British and American way of life to keep you amused. Be warned though you are likely to end up with an even longer wish list after listening to their recommendations.
  2. Guardian podcast: A Good Read. This is a regular program where two guests and the host select a book that they they rate highly and argue why other people should read it. Each guest describe they book, why they enjoy it and then they have a discussion about its merits. It was through one of these episodes that I was encouraged to read Cannery Row by Steinbeck which I had somehow thought would be rather dreary but proved hilarious at times.
  3. Backlisted podcast: This is a relatively new find for me but I’m enjoying what I’ve heard so far. It’s issued every two weeks and is based on the idea that the simple two hosts choose an old book they think everyone should read. One of the hosts is Andy Miller who wrote The Year of Reading Dangerously in which he talks about how he re-ignited his passion for reading. Expect to hear a fair amount of blokish chit chat – the podcast seems to be recorded around a kitchen table where the hosts do a general catch up with their invited guest for the episode. In one of the first episodes I heard which was about The Riddle of the Sands, a good 30 minutes was taken up with discussions about gin and what each person in the room was reading (and why). When it gets into the meat of the broadcast though, which is the book in question, expect to hear some good quality insight. The podcast is available via SoundCloud or ITunes.
  4. ITunes: A wealth of material here including recordings of entire books. Librivox is one of the main contributors here – these are recorded by volunteers so the quality is extremely variable. I’ve had to give up on a few because I really didn’t like the narrator’s voice but that’s just my taste. My favourites have been some old time radio programs with Adventures of Inspector Maigret by George Simenon and Agatha Christie. It takes a bit of searching to get to them but the reward is worth it.
  5. ITunes University: many leading universities around the world make some of their lecture programmes available via ITunes – to find them go to ITunes and then select ITunes U. The quality can vary enormously – bear in mind that sometimes the lecture itself is recorded as it’s delivered in the lecture room so you may find you can’t pick up the discussion or questions from students. But that’s a minor inconvenience for the value of often feeling you are in the room at some of these prestigious academic centres. A few interesting ones I’ve come across that are good quality are
    1. Oxford University: George Eliot – an introduction to her major works and her intellectual interests.
    2. Open University: good introduction short podcasts on some of their modules. Explore Wordsworth or European Romanticism or creative writing.
    3. Cambridge University: Literary criticism key terms. A great resource for people who want to know what the ‘sublime’ or the ‘pastoral’ means in literature for example.
    4. My current listening is from La Trobe university in Australia which has two courses on children’s literature – one on genres looks at the history of picture books and fairy tales and another takes a post colonial approach. You’ll get used to the accent after a while.

As a bonus here (just to make it up to a list of 10!) is a non book audio program which is a must listen for me:  The Archers podcast. For those of you in the UK this will be a familiar program. But for non UK residents it will come as a bit of a surprise that this is a  5 day a week, 13 minute BBC radio soap opera set in a fictional farming community in the heart of England. Most of the characters are farmers or connected to the land in some way but we also have the village pub, the tea room, a stately home and a grand country hotel to give variety. It’s long evolved from its roots in the 1950s when it was created as a way to give farmers tips on how to increase production to help a country still dealing with food rationing. Today it’s billed as a “Contemporary drama in a rural setting’ which means yes you still get farming issues but there’s also adultery, teenage angst, crime,  road building and currently, the hottest topic of all, marital abuse.

The oldies in my bookshelves

I don’t normally join in with Top Ten Tuesday but this week’s topic happened to coincide with one of my periodic reviews of my TBR. So I give you my list of 10 Books That Have Been On My Shelf (Or TBR) From Before I Started Blogging and Still Have Not Got Around to Reading.

10oldiesjpg

A selection of the books that have been waiting for years for me to read

In no particular order:

  1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Yes I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to read this classic in its entirety – just read bits and pieces as needed for essays. Oops.
  2. Armdale by Wilkie Collins. Exactly when this book came into my house I am not sure.  It was at least 17 years ago  since it was in the boxes when when we moved into our current house that long ago. Indeed it is a rather old looking paperback though not so old that the pages are yellow. I might even have read it but if I did then it left no impression on me.  It is however not the oldest book on my shelves.
  3. Can Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I read the first two in the Barchester Chronicles (The Warden and Barchester Towers) and loved them. The plan was to read the whole series and then move onto the Palliser series of which Can You Forgive Her is the first title but I never got beyond Barchester Towers. My copy of Can You Forgive Her is dated 1996 so you can see how long ago I dreamed up that plan. I will get around to it sometime soon….possibly
  4. Even then the Trollope is not the oldest on the shelf. That dubious honour goes to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. My copy was printed in 1986 – yep it’s been with me for 30 years and has never been opened since there isn’t any sign of a crease on the spine. I started reading an e version of this about two years ago but lost interest.
  5. George Eliot – The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes. I love Eliot’s work and bought this rather fat book as a way of getting to know Eliot the person. It’s been on the shelf now for longer than 5 years and I haven’t even opened it.
  6. A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy du Maupassant: I made this a special request one Christmas having heard that Maupassant was a master of the short story format. I must have been in one of my “I need to read more short stories’ periods; none of which have proved successful.
  7. Virginia Woolf An Inner Life by Julia Briggs: There is a definite pattern emerging here with many of the books that are stuck at the back of the shelves falling into the category of literary biographies. Maybe I thought that I would seem very learned and intelligent by reading these…..
  8. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. About 10 years ago  some work colleagues recommended this breakthrough work on climate change and chemical pollution. I wasn’t looking forward to it, expecting it would be rather ‘worthy’ and stuffed full of facts which would make it less readable. But the introductory pages  were a revelation because Carson was clearly someone who understood rhythm and meter and imagery. It was a very poetic form of prose that I loved. But clearly not enough to read any further because there the book sits on the shelf unread all these years later.
  9. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. This 1794 novel is satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’d never read it but thought it would be interesting to see exactly some of the form and conventions of the Gothic novel that she was ridiculing. It’s a fat novel where not a lot seems to happen for a very long time other than the heroine goes wandering around some mountainous region of France. I kept waiting for the ‘horror’ element to kick in. My copy still has my bookmark showing that I read about half of it. Will I ever go back to read the remaining section? Hm, not entirely sure about that.
  10. Pamela by Samuel Richardson. This one belongs to an era when I was trying to fill in some gaps from my reading of the early British novel. Pamela, published in 1740, was the best-seller of its time. The reading public obviously had more patience and tolerance than I did because I’ve not got much further than page 50. As with Radcliffe, will I feel its good for my soul to read this or that life it too short to spend on books I am not enjoying?

 

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