Finding Time To Read

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500There was an article in the paper on Tuesday about a new venture in the French city of Grenoble.  Apparently, they have installed a number of automatic dispensers which schpeel out free printed short stories for frustrated citizens waiting for their turn to encounter various forms of bureaucracy.  After they have taken a number for whichever queue they have joined said citizens can then push another button to receive a short story on a scrolled piece of paper that is not dissimilar to a till receipt. It seems that this has gone down a storm, with satisfied readers quoted as saying that they are transported out of the waiting room and into a ‘happy moment’ with new and interesting characters. Apparently, the stories take between one and three minutes to read.  All I can say is that bureaucratic queues must be a darned sight shorter in Grenoble than they are in England.

This did, however, raise yet again that perennial question of just how do you manage to find the time to read.  Part of me may be quite envious of those short French queues, but I have to admit that having the freedom to read uninterrupted in waiting rooms not only makes waiting far less stressful, but also, paradoxically, means that sometimes our English queues move too fast. All readers know the joy of the half a dozen snatched moments, but they are never enough and nine times out of ten we get to the end of a day and wonder just how that book we are reading got sidelined yet again.

In theory this should be absolutely no problem at all for me.  I am retired and I have no immediate family to make calls on my time, and indeed, when I first gave up work I did seem to be able to do all the reading and associated blogging that I wanted to.  But, I had to give up work on health grounds and for the first six months I did very little other than read and force myself out for a daily walk.  Now I’m back up and running (or at least ambling) again and out and about in the community it doesn’t seem so easy to carve out the hours that I want.

Lot of people talk as if they have found the answer but when you dig into what they have to suggest there is very often little substance behind their remarks. There was a discussion on the radio about ten days ago after a query as to how to choose what to read given the amount of fiction that is published these days.  The ‘expert’ didn’t really answer that question (which was a shame, because that is another perennial problem) but diverted off into the issue of time, however, all she actually came out with was that you had to prioritise. Well, yes, I can see that.  But how do I actually set about doing it?

I do all the things I’m supposed to.  I never go anywhere without a book, or at least (given back problems) without an ereader.  I watch very little television and apart from blogging spend almost no time at all on social media.  I would be loath to give up blogging because half the pleasure of a good book is ‘talking’ about it with other people.  I can’t do the ‘go to bed half an hour later and get up half an hour earlier’ thing because if I don’t get my seven hours I wouldn’t be any good for the reading time I do get.

So, what are your tricks for extending out the reading time?  I know you must have some because many bloggers read and review far more than I do.  What am I missing and how can I improve?

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

After You Die ~ Eva Dolan

cover77357-mediumTwo years ago I reviewed Long Way Home, Eva Dolan’s first novel featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crime Department, and heaped on it the praise I felt it so justly deserved.  The only concern that I voiced was whether or not it would be possible to ring the changes sufficiently given that the motive behind the crimes that they encountered was likely to be similar in each case. I need not have worried. Long Way Home tackled the exploitation of immigrant labour. Since then we have had Tell No Tales, which dealt with issues to do with right wing extremism and now, at least initially, it seems that behind the murder currently under investigation may lie prejudice against those who are disabled.  It is, to say the least, disturbing to realise just how wide the brief is of those who investigate Hate Crimes.

After You Die occurs some months after the conclusion to the enquiry detailed in Tell No Tales and Mel Ferreira is now back at work after the horrific injuries she suffered in the course of that investigation.  Inevitably matters have been let slip while she has been recovering and so when the first news comes in of the death of Dawn Prentice and her disabled daughter, Holly, Mel’s immediate response is to question whether or not she is at fault.  The previous summer Dawn had made a number of complaints about harassment she and Holly were suffering as a result of Holly’s recent paralysis.  Although they were followed up at the time, Ferreira now wonders if she shouldn’t have pursued the issue further, even though the complaints tailed off.  But, as the investigation progresses, it begins to look as though the focus of the attack has in fact been Dawn and that whoever killed her assumed that Holly would be found while she was still alive.  Attention shifts to those who might have wished the woman harm, including her ex-husband and a number of men she has met through internet dating sites.

There is also, however, the question of why eleven year old Nathan, the foster child of Dawn’s friend Julia, has suddenly taken off into the blue.  He was a frequent visitor at the house.  Has he seen something that has scared him?  Why is no one willing to talk about his background?  Is it possible that Nathan himself committed the crime?  DI Zigic finds himself blocked at every turn as he tries to discover what it is about the youngster’s history that makes those who should be supporting the investigation refuse to co-operate.

There are several issues currently in the public eye raised in the course of this novel.  There have been a number of cases in the news recently where the police have not followed up on reports of harassment and as a result the complainants have been terribly injured or even killed.  The question of the evil that is internet trolling is also explored.  Ultimately, however, it seems to me that what this book is really concerned with is the vulnerability of children, both physically and psychologically, and the terrible damage that can be done to them, deliberately or otherwise, by those adults who are careless of their well-being.  Children proliferate in this story.  There are Zigic’s two boys as well as his unborn daughter.  In addition to Nathan, Julia fosters a second child, Caitlin, and is pregnant herself.  Then there is, of course, Holly, and also Benjamin, the son of the woman her father is now living with.  Not all of these children are innocents, but for the most part those who prove to be capable of acts of violence have been shaped by the adults they have encountered earlier in their lives.  Our children become the people that we help them grow into and if the significant adults in their lives (including those in authority who should take lasting care of them) abuse them either physically or through neglect, we have to recognise that there will be consequences.

This is a very accomplished novel.  I knew when I first encountered Eva Dolan that I would want to read whatever she wrote next and subsequent books have only reinforced that opinion.  Her characterisation has always been strong.  What is noticeably developing is her ability to offer a plot with clear lines of development and a strong underlying theme.  I very much look forward to the next novel in the series.

(With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker who made this available for review.)

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

My Name Is Lucy Barton ~ Elizabeth Strout

41yYCG48DSL__SX336_BO1204203200_-203x300Very very rarely you come across a book that is so close to perfection that writing about it yourself seems like an act of sacrilege.  Having just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, all I want to do is hide myself away and think about the enormity of her achievement in a book that runs to only two hundred pages and which my e-reader tells me can be read in just over an hour.  But, if I do that then how can I spread the word about a work that I want everyone to read?  So, almost reluctantly, I will try to give you some idea of the immense depth of human emotion that Strout is exploring in this small miracle of a novel, without trespassing too much on the work itself.

Lucy Barton is a writer and in this book, her book, she reflects on an incident many years earlier when she was unexpectedly hospitalised for nine weeks. During this time her mother, whom she has not seen for many years, visits her for five days.  The relationship between them is taut with unexpressed, unrecognised emotions, most particularly with a love to which neither of them can give voice.  Here, then is one of the subjects that Strout offers for our consideration, the relationship between mother and daughter.  What, she asks, is the extent of a mother’s responsibilities towards her daughter?  More pertinently, perhaps, to what extent is a daughter’s sense of identity shaped by her mother.  For the other important question that the author raises in the book is that of where our sense of identity comes from.  How do we develop a sense of self, a sense of our place in the world?

Strout explores many possible answers to this, answers which range from external signifiers:

the clothes I wore were me

through measuring ourselves against others:

I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment.  Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman.  The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand how far apart he and I were

to the ways in which others treat us.

And this is yet another area of concern for Strout: the way in which someone can be diminished in their own eyes by the disdain of another human being.

I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed?  Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”

And a look went across his face – so fast, so involuntary – that was a look of real distaste.  I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

Strout develops this particular question further, not only considering the ways in which one person might feel superior to another but also the perhaps more interesting question of why such a feeling of superiority is so important to us.

I have said before.  It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people.  It happens all the time.  Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

And as Lucy knows, the effects of such a put down can be out of all proportion to the words spoken: a tiny remark and the soul deflates.  

Lucy has fought hard to establish and maintain her own identity.  What becomes apparent as we read about her life is how difficult this can be and what terrible costs can be exacted as a result.

Like many readers, I first came across Elizabeth Strout’s work when Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize.  What struck me then about her writing and what is even more apparent in this latest work is her ability to say more that is true about character and emotion in half a dozen lines than most writers manage in a similar number of chapters.  I loved Olive Kitteridge, as I have loved her other three novels, but for me My Name is Lucy Barton outstrips all of them.  I will not read a better book this year.

A Spool of Blue Thread ~ Anne Tyler

51IxhCyQpLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach.  This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation.  Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house.  And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.

“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs.  Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.

They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.

[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported.  “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

“It’s the … circularity, I guess.  When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do.  Do we

find the Whitshanks attractive?  Intriguing?  [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?

Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it.  Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before.  Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.

The process begins slowly enough.  We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum.  And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes.  We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.

And yet, they are still Whitshanks.  Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae.  In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability.  It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged.   Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.

While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection.  Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks.  And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families.  Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool.  This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another.  But you know what?  In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole.  And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.

Beware… The Green-Eyed Monster

imagesIt can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question:  At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead?  Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)

It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another.  You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few.  I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach.  Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.

At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions.  These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing.  I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of  Shakespearian studies.

Talk about an act of serendipity.  It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It.  Why did I want to see it?  I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two.  But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy.  It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare.  Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.

I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive.  (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.)  You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here.  At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked.  And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man.  That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use.  That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her.  The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road.  Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.

You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant.  Well, I am one of those people.  If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different.  Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.

The Best And The Worst of 2015

7db028c3bace71b194a45cc01c1fd1adAs the last hours of 2015 draw to a close it is time to look back on my reading year and think about which books have astounded me and which, unfortunately, have disappointed. When I consider the year as a whole one thing that I do regret is how much valuable time I spend re-reading, but this is inevitable given that of the three book groups to which I belong I run two as well as a Summer School and all of them tend to rely on my recommendations.  I do try and make sure that what we tackle are books that will not simply bear a re-read but actually benefit from it, but even so, it is time that could be given to new works and I’m afraid I do rather resent that.

Where I have read books for the first time they have by no means always been books published this year.  So, best and worst of 2015 means best and worst in relation to what I’ve actually read rather than of what are new publications. Besides, even if they had all been 2015 publications, I am not deluded enough to think that I have any sort of grasp on the entirety of what the publishing world is producing.  My ego isn’t that far developed!

So, let’s start with the worst and get them out of the way.  The book that I read for the first time which disappointed the most was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.  I know that a great many of you loved this novel but it was one of the very few books this year that I gave up on.  While I thought the conceit was really interesting I was simply bored rigid by the characters and honestly couldn’t have cared less what happened to them regardless of which reality they inhabited.  I decided life was too short to spend time with them once, let alone three times, and sent it back to the library for someone in the long line of reservations who would appreciate it better than I could.

The re-read that didn’t live up to my expectations, much to my surprise, was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  When I first encountered this I was an impressionable teenager ready to swallow whole any arguments put forward that would exonerate Richard III.  This time, coming to it with a rather more cynical eye, I was annoyed more than anything by Tey’s insistence that any rumour relating to Richard has to be explored thoroughly while accepting those about Henry VII without so much as a second thought.  Heaven knows I am no apologist for Henry, but this lack of even-handedness really irritated me, especially as it was precisely what she was complaining about in respect of previous chroniclers of the period.

However, at least I could understand what these two writers were aiming to achieve.  The prize for the most incomprehensible book of the year has been won hands down by Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish.  This turned up on one of my book group lists and I have no more idea now than I did after reading it what Flanagan’s purpose was in writing as he did.  I think the most appropriate way to describe how I got to the end would be to say that I gouged my way through it.  I am clearly not clever enough to appreciate what I was assured was a very literary novel.

On then to happier experiences.  I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of crime fiction this year but in general I wouldn’t say that any of the authors I read regularly have produced stunning novels.  However, one series that is gaining power with each new book is Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths sequence.  The fourth book, This Thing of Darkness came out during the summer and it was one of those occasions when everything came to a halt until I had read it from cover to cover.  However, if you haven’t yet encountered Fiona and her work out of the Cardiff Police Force then don’t start here.  Go back to the beginning with Talking to the Dead, not simply because there are strands that you need to follow through the series but because all four books are excellent.  Not unlike Sara Paretsky, Bingham is concerned with the way in which those with access to power are able to manipulate the law to their own ends.  I live in hope that in the fifth novel, The Dead House, due next July, some of those smug so-and-sos will finally get their comeuppance.

Where more general fiction is concerned 2015 proved to be the year when I caught up with novels that others had been appreciating for, well in some cases, decades.  Having admitted that I had never read To Kill A Mockingbird two of my book groups immediately scheduled it just so that I could finally be shown the error of my ways and I will happily admit to having loved it and being completely unable to understand why I had never picked it up before. But, perhaps surprisingly, I did not become an Atticus fan.  I definitely had reservations where he was concerned.  So I am going to be interested to see how I get on with Go Set A Watchman when we read it next summer.  Maybe I won’t be as distressed by the way his character is portrayed there as so many other readers seem to have been.

My book of the year, however, with no possible competitors in sight, was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  I read this three times in the course of a matter of months, once for each book club, and it grew in my estimation every time.  I could eulogise about the novel yet again but this post is already too long and you can read what I had to say when I first encountered the book here. For me reading this was one of those rare experiences when I just wanted to enter into the world of the book and walk hand in hand with the characters for the rest of my life. I am certain that I haven’t read it for the last time and confident that I will never grow weary of it.  If, this time next year, 2016 has provided a novel that comes anywhere near that it will have been a year worth waiting for.

Great Expectations

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3I’m sure we all know the old saying that someone’s eyes are bigger than their stomach.  It is probably especially appropriate at this time of year when too many of us habitually pile our plates with more food than we can ever reasonably hope to eat – and yes, Bears, I am looking in your direction.  However, I’m equally certain that those of us who are avid readers are well aware that a literary variant of this adage also exists, namely that our projected reading is always larger than the amount we actually manage to get through.

You would think, wouldn’t you, considering how much we have read during our lifetimes, that by now we would have a realistic expectation of the number of books we are likely to get through in any given period.  Not a bit of it!

Now I’m not talking here about the wilful neglect of books that we feel we ought to read but somehow never get round to.  I had a colleague who each summer took all the newly published books in her field on holiday with her with the stated intention of catching up on the latest research.  To the best of my knowledge she never read a single one and I don’t think deep down she ever thought she would. However subliminal, that is deliberate self-deception.  No, this is something different.  I’m certain that we draw up these reading lists, whatever the number of hours or days we think we have before us, with the honest belief that there really will be ‘world enough and time’ to get through them.  And we never learn that we are, quite simply, wrong.  For years, whenever I went on holiday, I would pack enough books to stock a small library.  One for every day I was away and a couple over just in case I’d chosen something I ended up disliking was my general rule of thumb.  I just had to hope that I was going to be able to buy clean underwear when I arrived at my destination. I probably got through about half. Latterly, the arrival of the e-reader has at least meant that I have had room for clothes as well, but nevertheless the number of books downloaded is still equal to those previously packed.  Hope springs eternal in the reader’s breast.

And holidays at home are no different as I have just rediscovered.  I was determined that I was going to read my way through all of the Wimsey books over this past ten days as well as catching up with a number of reviewing commitments.  Have I done so?  No, of course I haven’t!  Four Wimseys and two review copies has been my tally.  And if I’d been honest with myself I would have known in advance that that would be the case.  Why?  Because it always has been, and it always will be. I suspect it is an unalterable law of the universe.  It’s just that with a stretch of a week or so when there really is going to be time to simply curl up and indulge myself, my imagination runs away with me and I start to fantasise about how many of those ‘must reads’ I am going to be able to consume.  I should have learnt by now that however much I wish it were the case, fantasy is not real life.

In truth, I do still have another week before my regular commitments start up again, but of course, I have preparation to do for them and so what I want to read is going to have to be put to one side in favour of what I have to read. I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  At least my work prep is still reading and fiction reading at that.  Things could be a lot worse.  But, that pile of books that I so confidently predicted I was going to demolish has been diminished by less than half and yet again I have failed to meet my great expectations.