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2017 Reading Goals: An Update

It seems like high time for an update as to how I’m getting on with my 2017 reading goals.  When I made my list last November, I was aware that I was being very ambitious, particularly with a PhD thesis to write, and trying to cut down on the number of books I’m purchasing.  Still, the organised bookworm inside me could not be stilled, and I came up with rather a large list, comprised of a series of authors and a list of standalone books I wanted to read, as well as a French and Scottish reading project.

I’ve not done fantastically thus far, truth be told.  I was relying on the library to provide most of the outlined tomes when the year began, but many copies have been lost, or the previous borrower hasn’t yet returned them.  A few have been incredibly difficult to find through other avenues.

If we look at the authors and distinct books list, I haven’t done too badly.  Out of nineteen authors which I wrote on my list, I have read books by thirteen of them; the only ones which I have outstanding are Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Joan Didion, Leena Krohn, Ira Levin, and Gunter Grass.  I am going to aim to read one book by each of these authors before the year is out, but Nothomb and Krohn are eluding me rather at present.  With regard to the books which I outlined, I have read fourteen of them (unlucky for some!), and have nineteen outstanding (not so good!).  Two of these are on my to-read pile, but the others I’m not having a great deal of luck with finding.  I’m hoping to be able to get to them all by the end of the year (although I may leave the M.R. Carey by the wayside, as Fellside was largely disappointing).

I am doing relatively poorly with my geographical reading projects this year.  Of the thirty books on my Reading France project, I have read just seven of them, and have two on my to-read list.  A lot of the books which I was very much looking forward to have proved almost impossible to get hold of, which is a real shame; I may have to add them back onto my TBR list, and tackle them at another time.  With regard to my Reading Scotland list, I have read twelve of twenty-nine, and only have one of them on my to-read list (it’s actually my boyfriend’s book).

Looking over my lists, and the progress which I have made (or not!), I have decided that it’s probably not a good idea to be so ambitious going forward.  I have one project in mind for next year, but it’s free choice, so I will definitely have no trouble getting my hands on elusive tomes.

 

 

 

How are you getting on with your reading challenges this year?

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Reading the World: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ by Heinrich Boll **

Heinrich Boll, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an author whom I’d heard rather a lot about but had never read.  I decided to rectify this by picking up perhaps his most famous novel in English translation, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  The Sunday Telegraph deems it a ‘novel of compassion and irony’, and The Times writes of the way in which ‘Boll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end.  He is detached, angry and totally in control’.  It sounded wonderfully unsettling, particularly when one takes into account the fact that its subtitle is ‘or how violence develops and where it can lead’, and I was rather excited to get started with it.

9780749398989Katharina Blum, our twenty seven-year-old protagonist, is at the ‘centre of a big city scandal’ when, at a party, she ‘falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police.  Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats’.  This drives her to shoot the offending journalist, before giving herself up for arrest.  ‘Step by step, and with an affecting forensic identity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive.  The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction’.

The structure works well, in that the whole has been split into very short numbered sections; it is intended to read as something akin to a police report.  I am fine with novels being written in the format of a report, provided that it is done well.  Here, though, I was a little put off by the way in which many of the sections are really rather dull, and have very few redeemable or memorable qualities to them.  Sadly, these lacklustre sections were far more frequent than ones which I found of interest.  The story tends to get bogged down with tiny details.  Whilst it is fascinating, and often scary, to see how the media can affect a life, the real impact here for me came when I related the events of Katharina’s story to the ‘fake news’ scandal which has been going on for longer than we would perhaps like to believe.  The development of the characters in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was rather slipshod; perhaps this is because we, the readers, learn about the protagonist only through the biased viewpoint of the police.  I certainly lost interest at times, and debated whether to even finish reading the piece.

Unfortunately, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum did next to nothing for me.  The detachment was so acute that I could feel no sympathy for Katharina, and felt merely like an isolated observer.  Its translator has done a good job in rendering it into English, and the phrasing reads well whilst being rather dated; however, I simply found the book too matter-of-fact, and not entirely well paced.  Widely regarded as a German classic, I wonder if I am missing something fundamental with regard to The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  I suppose it is fair to say that whilst I liked the general idea of the book, I had rather a few qualms with its execution, and can therefore rate it no higher than two mediocre stars.

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Reading Glasgow

I am currently living in Glasgow for my postgraduate studies, and have been trying to read as many books set here as I possibly can.  Glancing at ‘top ten books set in…’ lists, however, has made me feel as though I’m not actually doing too well with this particular quest.  With that in mind, I have made a list of eight Glaswegian books, both fiction and non-fiction, which will be on my radar for the remainder of my time here.

1. Lanark by Alasdair Gray 973598
This work, originally published in 1981, has been hailed as the most influential Scottish novel of the second half of the 20th century. Its playful narrative techniques convey a profound message, personal and political, about humankind’s inability to love and yet our compulsion to go on trying.

 

2. No Mean City by Alexander MacArthur
First published in 1935, it is the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, the ‘Razor King’ of Glasgow’s pre-war slum underworld, the Gorbals. The savage, near-truth descriptions, the raw character portrayals, bring to life a story that is fascinating, authentic and convincing.

 

17608013. Night Song of the Last Tram by Robert Douglas
A wonderfully colourful and deeply poignant memoir of growing up in a ‘single end’ – one room in a Glasgow tenement – during and immediately after the Second World War. Although young Robert Douglas’s life was blighted by the cruel if sporadic presence of his father, it was equally blessed by the love of his mother, Janet. While the story of their life together is in some ways very sad, it is also filled with humorous and happy memories.

 

4. Garnethill by Denise Mina
Maureen O’Donnell wakes up one morning to find her therapist boyfriend murdered in the middle of her living room and herself a prime suspect in a murder case. Determined to clear her name, Maureen undertakes her own investigation and learns of a similar murder at a local psychiatric hospital.  She soon uncovers a trail of deception and repressed scandal that could clear her name – or make her the next victim.

 

5. The Crow Road by Iain Banks 12021
Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances…

 

6. Head for the Edge, Keep Walking by Kate Tough
Head for the Edge, Keep Walking absorbs you into the eccentric world of Jill Beech, whose friends are finally getting their lives together while hers is falling apart. Adrift at thirty-four, no-one does ‘lost’ quite like Jill. Wry, witty, resilient but bewildered, she’s left asking, ‘What does it take to stay sane in this life? And why does it look easier for everyone else?’  Her nine-year relationship is over. She swaps one so-so job for another. She gets drunk with off-beat friends and internet dates with mixed results… Then life is flipped on its head by some shocking news. But average ‘chic fiction’ this ain’t!   There’s nothing average about Jill and her distinctive, savagely honest voice; with sentences you’ll want to read and re-read for their lyrical, original language and ringing clarity. An exploration of modern friendships and relationships, Jill’s voice will penetrate and have you analysing your own life choices through her lens!  When events take Jill to the edge – will tip herself over or turn things around and keep walking?

 

110761987. Waterline by Ross Raisin
Mick Little used to be a shipbuilder in the Glasgow docks. He returned from Australia 30 years ago with his beloved wife Cathy, who longed to be back home. But now Cathy’s dead and it’s probably his fault. Soon Mick will have to find a new way to live – get a new job, get away, start again, forget everything.

 

8. The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman
Living in a no-bedroomed tenement flat, coping with the cold and boredom of busconducting and the bloody-mindedness of Head Office, knowing that emigrating to Australia is only an impossible dream, Robert Hines finds life to be ‘a very perplexing kettle of coconuts’. The compensations are a wife and child, and a gloriously anarchic imagination. The Busconductor Hines is a brilliantly executed, uncompromising slice of the Glasgow scene, a portrait of working-class life which is unheroic but humane.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which tomes set in Glasgow would you recommend?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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