Time Off

DSC_0803Somehow I have managed to carve out five days at the end of this week when I have to answer to no one but myself.  From Thursday through to Monday I can, if I so desire, close the door, build up the fire and simply sit and read.  The anticipation is almost as blissful as I hope the experience will be.

In truth I probably won’t just read.  I expect I shall vary my activities by doing things like frequenting bookshops or taking a trip to the library.  And I shall probably vary the places in which I read as well, by visiting numerous tea shops and buying large pots of tea and plates of sticky cakes to accompany whatever happens to be the book of the moment.

And that, of course, is the other source of anticipatory delight.  What am I going to read?  I have three recent publications sitting on the shelf just crying out for my attention.  I shall start with Helen Dunmore’s Exposure and then toss a coin to see which is to come next, David Mitchell’s Slade House or the new Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.  I’ve also got Graham Swift’s most recent offering, Mothering Sunday on reserve, but it may not turn up from the library in time. Oh well, I shall need something tasty to condole me for having to turn some of my attention back to the real world.  And, just in case all that should be too literary for me, I have a couple of new crime novels from NetGalley on my e-reader to relax with.  Those for the evenings, perhaps, when my brain is not functioning quite as well as it was during the daytime hours.

If I feel so inclined then I might stop by here and make a few notes along the way, but otherwise see you the other side of the weekend.

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The Benefits of Re-Reading (For Me)

ImageDon’t worry, this is not going to be another post asking you to come down on one side or other of the re-reading divide.  I have taken part in far too many discussions on the subject not to have realised by now that readers either do enjoy re-reading or they don’t and that you are certainly never going to persuade those that don’t of any merit in the practice.  No, this is a memo to myself about what I am beginning to see as the benefits for this one particular reader of being put in a position where re-reading is necessary.  If you have anything to add, then that would be great, but don’t worry if the whole concept of picking up a book for a second time is an anathema to you; just click onto another post.

I am a re-reader so I quite often find myself re-reading books that are one of a series out of choice.  There are, I think, two main reasons for this.  Firstly, with a year or two or, more crucially, a hundred books or two, between a new novel and the last, I often feel the need to remind myself of where the previous episode in the story left off.  This is true not only of three volume fantasy epics but also much longer police procedural series where in theory each book should stand alone.  Often in the case of the latter, while the main plot line is separate in each book, there is an on-going subplot that runs throughout the series and before I embark on any new adventure I need to recall just where I left all the characters at the end of the last.

The second reason I find myself re-reading these novels is also to do with the characters.  I like them; I enjoy spending time with them; I wouldn’t go back for another in the series if I didn’t.  And, when I’m tired or unwell or simply having one of those days, picking up a book which features a much loved friend is overwhelmingly comforting.  Of course, the same can be said of those that people one-off stories, but almost inevitably when I want a book that is going to do the equivalent of wrapping me up in a cosy blanket with a large pot of tea and persuading me that all is well with the world really then it is a previously read series book to which I return.

However, having admitted to being, at times, a re-reader by choice, it is also true to say that I have been known to complain about the number of occasions when I find myself being put into the position of having to re-read a book simply because it has been selected by one or other of my book groups.  Once or twice a year wouldn’t be so bad, but very often it is as frequently as once a month.  In January two of the three choices fell into that category.  The first February selection was another such.  I read Anne Enright’s The Green Road when it was published last year and although I thought it an extremely good book it wasn’t top of my list of novels that I wanted to revisit.  However, having had the opportunity to explore it a second time, knowing what was going to happen and therefore able to pay more attention to other aspects of the work, I am forced to admit that re-reading can very often pay real dividends when it comes to appreciating the nuances of a writer’s intentions.

In respect of The Green Road what I found myself doing was making sense of the book not simply as the story of one particular Irish family but rather as the ongoing narrative of the Irish nation as a whole.  What triggered this was the fact that this time round I picked up on the repetition of the song O My Dark Rosaleen.  During the nineteenth century, when expressions of nationalism were forbidden in Ireland, this was used as a means of making a covert patriotic statement and it is still the case that the Rosaleen of the lyric is seen as referring to the country as a whole every bit as much as it is thought to be about a single individual.  I knew this when I read the book the first time, but I was so busy trying to keep the characters and the action straight in my mind that I simply didn’t pick up on it.  At a second time of asking, however, I had more attention to spare for the detail and suddenly the whole book opened up for me with Enright’s mother figure, Rosaleen, becoming not only the prism through which the behaviour of the Madigan family is understood, but also a symbolic representation of the country itself and the equivocal relationship maintained between the land and its people.

If I’m honest I have to admit that it isn’t the first time that something like this has happened.  Maybe I should train myself to read more carefully the first time round, but being a Bear of Very Little Brain I’m afraid that I can only take in so much information at one go.  So, I must settle for recognising that, however much I complain about the fact, sometimes being asked to read a book a second time around is going to pay substantial dividends.

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?

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.