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Reading Life: 9th September 2019

A photograph of the view over London from Primrose Hill

At about 1/3 of the way through This Must Be The Place, I’m finding it a lot of work, mentally, but still enjoying it; it changed rapidly with the introduction of new subplots which O’Farrell is exploring concurrently and via various characters. A lot of it has to do with different periods of time and ‘clues’. Aside from the requirement to keep up, the book is satisfying in its complexity. The various voices are intriguing, with characters from different places; O’Farrell’s staying in tune with the dialects.

Conversations With Friends, begun very belatedly (it won the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017), is going well. It’s not caught my interest quite as much as the O’Farrell simply because the plot is more simple and the book overall more usual, more of what I’ve read before. It’s also not due back at the library in a few weeks, like the O’Farrell. The conversation in it is definitely the best part, at least for now. The narrator is an interesting choice – the character who is the most open, most talkative when it comes to others, less likely to hide things, and more reliable simply due to the seeming honesty in her words and obviousness in her actions.

I’m in an accidental Irish author phase.

Somewhat in tandem with my trip to Virginia Woolf’s house last week, I’m going to be making my fourth attempt to read Mrs Dalloway. The book and Woolf’s life has been continually on my mind since last summer – I’d been wanting to visit Monk’s House for a year – and so I’ve decided there’s no time like the present. The catalyst for my actually going ahead is in fact my trip – a big reason why I struggled with the book is that I couldn’t work out how old Clarissa is meant to be; I thought she was middle-aged at least, but researching other reader’s opinions suggested she’s a lot younger. Well, whether it’s still one person’s opinion or one born of more extensive research I found the answer I needed in Leonard’s garage – the National Trust’s handwritten note of recommendation for Mrs Dalloway says she’s 52. Again, whether or not that’s right and whether or not I’ll find difficulties moving forward I don’t know but it’s enough to make a start. I’m taking having seen it there as a sign.

Have you read any books by Maggie O’Farrell or one of Sally Rooney’s two? What did you think of it/them?

 
Reading Life: 31st May 2019

A macro photograph of the side of a blossom

As I’d planned at the start of this month, I’ve put my reading time in May to use in finishing books, a couple of which were starting to languish on my list.

I’d been reading The Crossway for a few weeks, which isn’t a bad time for a book I’m not too sure about; it’s a good book, but there was a lot less about the pilgrimage itself that the author makes than anything else – the ‘whys’ were covered, but most often the ‘hows’ were left out. The best aspect of the book as it is, to my mind, is the history, for which Stagg has done a lot of research to expand on the stories he heard and read about along the way.

Belinda, if you saw my review last week (my last post in fact; it’s been a hectic week) you’ll note was partly problematic due to my having read the wrong edition (or the right edition depending on the era of the reader, and therein lies the problem). I have a mind to find a copy published by Oxford World Classics, try to work out exactly what I missed, but at the same time I’m loathed to make it a priority; I’m expecting that it’d be a case of finding a few paragraphs – which would be easy enough – but then combing through the text for the rest.

Having finished these books, as well as the Dolly Alderton that was a quick read, I’m now making my way through Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Peirene Press’ upcoming You Would Have Missed Me, the English translation of a Birgit Vanderbeke, their second book by the award-winning German author.

I read the first chapters of Becoming for my post on the British Book Awards, and knew at that point, already, that it was going to be a good read. Now, on chapter five, I can say it most definitely is. The pages are flying by. It’s a very open book, and the information about the social history of Chicago, provided by way of the story of her childhood, is fascinating.

I’m 40 pages into the 122 page Vanderbeke and I’m on a roll with it; I’m planning to go back to it after publishing this post, and I’m aiming to finish it tonight. Having struggled with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway I thought twice before starting – like the Woolf, Vanderbeke’s is written in a stream-of-consciousness manner – but it’s brilliant. The ‘stream’ here is used to return to previously discussed topics – it’s much like the way stand-up comedians loop back to their opening subjects during and at the end of their allotted time, just without the humour – and the voice, adult but in the context of the character as a child, and the themes, are fantastic. I’ll save the rest for the review.

There has been a lot less literary study or literature-inspired internet rabbit hole journeys this month; it’s been strange to write this post feeling something’s missing. I have been watching literary-related programmes however, most notably the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, which I’m loving almost as much as the first series of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (though I know they are very different!) The acting is superb, the breaking of the fourth wall a lot of fun (I’ve assumed this is so that we can hear from the source material itself, unedited), and the general execution of the story as a screen adaptation just very compelling. Unfortunately Anne Lister’s diaries are not on Project Gutenberg – I checked, though I think it’s likely that due to them being rediscovered and decoded recently, ownership – Shibden Hall, probably – will continue for a while.

 
Reading Life: 8th March 2019 (This Is Long, And Long-Winded)

All the posts I haven’t made on this blog the past few months have here been somewhat accounted for by the length of this one. I’ve separated it into sections and fully expect you to only read some of it.

Book cover of L M Montgomery's The Blue Castle

For Starters

In my February round up, I said that for March I plan to read at least one more classic, having spent time with three in those short 28 days. Eight days in to March and I’ve completed one classic and am quarter of the way through another.

It took only the first day of March and my craving to return to Montgomery’s The Blue Castle – to both fulfill my want of a re-read and to carry on reading Montgomery without necessarily carrying on with Anne’s story – to realise that I need to read classics.

I’ve a number of contemporary books I’d like to read right now/soon, and will be reading Sofie Laguna’s The Choke as planned (published next month) but otherwise in terms of active attempts I’m opening contemporary books and getting nowhere with them. Perhaps it’s the way I’m having to juggle my mental energy at the moment, but classics, even lengthy ones, are appealing where newer books aren’t. There’s a peace to be found in older books that have continually ‘made it’ through the years – even if they’re dark or full of filler content, you know you’re going to find something in them that’s worthy of your time.

Right now I’m definitely conscious of that value.

So re-reading The Blue Castle and gaining more from it, which I’ll discuss in a moment, was fantastic, but the book in mind when I speak of value is my current read: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

A photograph of D H Lawrence

Lawrence

I attempted a brief description on Twitter but character limit made it difficult: I’ve been wanting to read D H Lawrence since I was pretty young. My dad had a mundane-looking hardback of his stories that sat on the bookshelf beside a collection of Graham Greene’s. (When I was younger, adult books with mundane covers drew me more than any colourful, pictorial ones; I think it was some sort of thought as to the way in which reading them would mean you were very grown up.) I once asked someone else about the books and was told of the Lawrence that it was just smut. Of course this made me want to read it more – forget about the sex (or only possible sex, given the person who told me), this was definitely a grown up book.

Unfortunately the negative word still stuck in my mind, and my dad eventually sold his copy on to a secondhand bookshop (I actually went looking for it but he’d been to a number of shops and couldn’t remember which book had gone where). I have the Graham Greene.

I’ve since read up about Lawrence, prepared myself to do battle with that voice in my head and the fact that Lawrence’s work was banned – so at least in this case that opinion of ‘smut’ was correct – found a copy of the book that flustered the world’s feathers, and started reading it.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is full of sex, and swearing. It was published 90 years ago and it’s still a bit shocking. But the thing that actually grates on me, is Lawrence’s deliberate use of repetition – he uses it when something about society annoys him, wanting to rant, and it’s a literary method that works, but ‘by jove!’ as his upper-class 1920s characters might say, he really didn’t need to keep on with it as much as he does.

Otherwise, there is value in Lawrence’s work. He writes from the female perspective which is often weird and unrealistic… and often relatable. He hits you over the head with his desires for England to stay traditional, not industrialised… and often achieves something that, whilst I don’t like the book myself, is rather as well-done as North And South.

I’m officially enjoying it, likely more than Lady Chatterley, though in a very different way. Lawrence lacks a certain closeness to his characters, and I don’t think I’ll necessarily want to read many, if any, of his other novels, but there’s plenty to appreciate. Of course this could well all change; there’s still the other 75% of the book to go.

A photograph of L M Montgomery

Montgomery

It was after having finished Anne Of Green Gables, and then Anne Of Avonlea, then I decided to re-read The Blue Castle; it had been 6 or so years in the making. It was a surprising experience: while I loved it as much, if not more, than I did the first time around, I hadn’t quite remembered the story correctly, nor had I remembered the amount of humour in it (I had thought there was a lot more humour to it than there was). This may have something to do with the particular experience I had, reading it a few years later, several years of life having happened in the meantime.

But most interesting was the way reading order affected what I took away from it. When I first read the book, it was my first experience of Montgomery’s work. Now, not only was I reading it with added context of her other work, I was reading it straight after those other works, back-to-back, with all the extra memory recall that provided.

And I found that Montgomery kept a number of themes going between the two stories (lumping the two Anne books together for a moment) which, if the difference in years has anything to do with it (Anne Of Green Gables and Anne Of Avonlea 1908 and 1909, The Blue Castle 1926) suggests a likely use of the themes in her work over all.

What I took away with me most was the use of daydreaming – Anne Shirley’s day dreaming that may well have been partly ADHD but is certainly both a young girl’s hopes and a way to get away from trauma, and Valancy’s day dreams as a way to get away from abuse and trauma. The characters both dream, and they dream for the same reasons. Perhaps the writer used dreaming herself – she is known to have suffered from depression in large part due to her unhappy marriage. (Wikipedia, link at the bottom, notes the long-thought – and recorded – death from coronary thrombosis that’s since been brought into question by the revelation from her granddaughter that she may have taken her own life.)

Perhaps this is partly why Anne, once in Anne Of Avonlea, dreams less – she now has stability. (‘Partly’ because I do think it has a lot to do with the idea of maturing.)

As well as this, through day dreams, Montgomery seems to suggest that so long as it doesn’t have a bad impact on reality, dreams should be had. She shows it’s a good thing and not just for children. She prefers fantastical dreams – princesses, castles. Valancy dreams a lot of this type – whilst an adult, she’s treated like a child by her family, and her Marble Halls-esque dreams echo both this child-like past and the desire to escape via the proverbial knight in shining armour.

Speaking Of Anne…

As I’ve said previously, I hadn’t planned on reading the Anne books; they were effectively on the very edges of my reading list, being books I might-maybe-possibly get to one day if there wasn’t another book to read. Recently, however, I’d seen publicity shots for the latest adaptation – Netflix’s – and it got my attention. I’m not planning to watch the adaptation, in fact if reports are anything to go by the 1985 Canadian production is the gold standard and the Netflix version, Anne With An E, whilst good, is informed by our present culture rather than the things that occur or are included in the book – menstruation, for example, would never have made the book.

Anyway, I read Anne Of Green Gables, moved straight on to Anne Of Avonlea, and loved it. I didn’t continue onto book three simply because I didn’t fancy having to write notes on the same characters, and no others, for the next few months. I’ll go back to it, likely some time in the near future.

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d.) Lucy Maud Montgomery, accessed 8th March 2019

 
Reading Life: 17th October 2018

A photograph of an open gate in a stone wall, surrounded by autumn leaves, part of the Hever Castle mock-Roman gardens

Reading a Christmas book in October has been an experience, especially considering the current weather. It’s not been particularly cold and there have been a lot of sunny days; of course October isn’t the correct month for seasonal reading anyway, but the fact it’s been so mild has made it actively feel unusual. Has it put me in a Christmasy mood? No, but it’s given me a gentle reminder of the atmosphere, not that one was needed because I’m planning for Christmas in other ways and have had In Dulci Jublio in my head for several days. It’s just as well there aren’t any lyrics and it’s difficult to hum.

Book cover

The book was Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop; I finished it yesterday evening but will be leaving the review until December. It was very seasonal despite its relative lack of time spent on the event itself – there was a lot of plot set during Advent but the Christmas days were dealt with swiftly, using a few romantic notions to make it more cosy. It may well be even better if read in December but to be honest I don’t think it particularly matters; the return dates stamped on the library issue paper at the front of the copy I read backs this up – there have been 5 other borrows (the book was published in 2013) but none have been at Christmas. In fact my late September issuing is the latest of the lot.

Having finished This Duchess Of Mine, book #5 in the Desperate Duchesses series, I’m looking at reading the last book, A Duke Of Her Own. I’m usually one to procrastinate over finishing a series I’ve enjoyed but as I didn’t like This Duchess Of Mine as much as most of the others (I wasn’t keen on book #2, An Affair Before Christmas, but it was for different reasons) I kind of want to get back to a better story; the plot of A Duke Of Her Own sounds more promising, seeming to be more focused on the ‘duke’ than the ‘duchess’, which may be an interesting change.

Something I did enjoy about book #5, however, was the information about medical advances, mostly factual. James included the basic story of Dr William Withering’s discovery of foxglove as a cure (or partial cure, she didn’t go into it) for heart problems. In the past it was proffered that this came about when Withering discovered a woman pharmacist giving people a mixture of various plants that seemed to work; Withering conducted a process of elimination to find out the effective active ingredient and then the right dosage. In reality, and whilst James included this anecdote, it has been debunked1 – it’s more likely to have been a family recipe. It seems James was keen to include Withering particularly as the discovery was hijacked by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who published a paper with but a footnote about the doctor. The two had been acquainted earlier before Darwin’s need for a second opinion on a patient, resulting in the relationship breaking down. Withering has since been established as the discoverer of foxglove.

Book cover

As well as this, James made far more than a passing reference to the 1700s usage of old war hulks as prisoner ships on the Thames. Whilst the riots she wrote in weren’t so real – she switched locations and reasons – the prison ships of the time were based on history. I’m not sure what keywords to look for in order to find out much about this, but did find this snippet on Wikipedia.

In non-reading but still bookish news, I’m slowly writing the draft of a blog post I’ve been loitering around for a few years, ever since I read The Awakening. I’m not sure why I never finished the post at the time but recent reading brought in another possibility for it and suddenly the basic idea I had had has taken extra shape. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading around the subject, including looking at the origins of the rediscovery of Chopin’s work in general2. I’m not sure when I’ll have finished the post as I’ve added a lot of extra work into it and became a bit too enthusiastic about research which means lots of opinions to par down, but it’s been quite fun.

Whilst I’ve not read as many books as I was hoping I would have by this time, I have watched a lot of films and am currently in a situation that rarely happens – I’ve not got any books lingering on my ‘currently reading’ list except the eternal Vanity Fair. It’s making me want to pick my next few reads very carefully so that I keep it up.

A photograph of a scene from Wicked

Photo copyright © 2013/14 London Company, photo by Matt Crockett.

And as a sort of literary aside, because I found out yesterday it is based on a book, I saw the latest touring production of Wicked. I didn’t think much of the plot, but the set design, and the singing in itself, were fantastic. It’s in Southampton for the next week before moving on to Wales and Manchester.

Footnotes

1 Kirkler (1985) says: “In republishing a plate suggesting a discussion between Withering and “Mother Hutton,” presumably a rural herbalist, in which she appeared to give him the “family receipt,” Willius and Keys (7) did, however, acknowledge that this was an imaginary depiction. There is no need to improve on the account given by the author; town and country were then still much intertwined, and the crucial aspect is surely Withering’s botanical expertise.” (p. 5A) [Willius and Keys published their piece in the 1940s.]
2 It happened in the 1960s – the main facts passed around have to do with Per Seyersted, a Professor of American Literature, who found out about Chopin and reintroduced her work to the literary scene in 1969. However Chopin had been discovered already, in the 50s, by a Frenchman, Cyrille Arnavon, who translated the 1899 English book into French, calling it, simply, Edna. Arnavon wrote an essay to introduce the book, saying that it should be more well-known and studied.

Online References

Krikler, Dennis (1985) The foxglove, “the old woman from Shropshire” and Willam Withering, Journal Of American College Of Cardiology, Vol. 5, Issue 5, Supplement 1, pp3A-9A

 
Reading Life: 5th September 2018

A photograph of the Japanese garden at Kingston Lacy

With more reading time to spend as of late, I’ve found myself reading the books I received at Christmas, novels I’d asked for upon request for a list. The Nakano Thrift Shop was one. Originally drawn in by the hype, I decided to read it when browsing my shelves and whilst I thought early on that it probably wasn’t my cup of tea I wanted to keep going, after all it was a present and I was intrigued by the author. I wonder if perhaps, looking at things with introductions in mind, I should have read Murakami first, but then one book doesn’t speak for all and to my knowledge the translators for the two authors are different.

From there I picked up Americanah – first started in January – and read it until the end, which meant from 1/3 of the way through. It’ll be on my best of list. The variety of subjects under the one umbrella topic, particularly with a main character who isn’t all that likeable, was very well done.

And then I opted for the book that sat next to the Kawakami on my higgledy-piggledy to be read shelf, also a gift – Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It hardly bears repeating that it’s difficult, but for its literary value, both in terms of Plath and in the context of literature as a whole, it’s also enjoyable. I’ve noted down a number of extracts – the story of the bellhop, Esther/Sylvia’s views on women’s lives in those years – and am also enjoying the lighter moments, elements I didn’t expect would be included. For now it’s less dark than I imagined, but I know it goes further. I’m working at a sort of 50/50 pace with research – reading a few chapters, switching to research, then going back to the book. I read about the debates surrounding Plath and Ted Hughes when I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but there have been more recent reports about her father aligning with the Nazis – like this one from 2012 by Dalya Alberge – that paint a picture that gives a more rounded story to Plath’s poem, Daddy, from which the following comes:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

I’m half thinking that after Plath I should continue on to other books received as presents, because it’s a good mix, and includes Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge Of The World. I’ll see – I’m inclined to be completely whimsical, and reading books received as gifts sets an expectation, however random.

Which difficult book have you read recently and how did you find the experience?

 

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