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Books I Probably Should Have Read…

As a voracious reader, I have always been aware that there are several (hundred) tomes which I should have read already, but haven’t.  I’m almost entirely sure that most readers have the same problem.  Rather than make this a self-pitying post to the tune of my never having picked up anything by Umberto Eco, for instance, I thought I would make a post detailing some of the books which I Probably Should Have Read to date.  I’m aware that I could probably fill a whole fortnight’s worth of posts with such material, but have decided to be relatively selective to compile a manageable list of ten.  (NB. It was not my intention at all to list almost solely books by men!)

 

86940051. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”

 

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

 

402003. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.

 

4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
An American classic rediscovered by each generation, The Story of My Life is Helen Keller’s account of her triumph over deafness and blindness. Popularized by the stage play and movie The Miracle Worker, Keller’s story has become a symbol of hope for people all over the world.  This book–published when Keller was only twenty-two–portrays the wild child who is locked in the dark and silent prison of her own body. With an extraordinary immediacy, Keller reveals her frustrations and rage, and takes the reader on the unforgettable journey of her education and breakthroughs into the world of communication. From the moment Keller recognizes the word “water” when her teacher finger-spells the letters, we share her triumph as “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” An unparalleled chronicle of courage, The Story of My Life remains startlingly fresh and vital more than a century after its first publication, a timeless testament to an indomitable will.

 

176905. The Trial by Franz Kafka
Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.

 

6. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Steppenwolf is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”.

 

7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 227463
A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1963 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title.  In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”

 

8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

 

183067239. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.  Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

 

10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” First published in English in 1946; now in a new translation by Matthew Ward.

 

Have you read – or not read – any of these?  I’m not going to pretend that I’ll get around to reading them very quickly at all, but hypothetically, which do you think I should begin with?

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‘Dickens at Christmas’ ****

It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book. 9780099573135

Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.

Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’

I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.

Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.

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Readalong: ‘Our Mutual Friend’ by Charles Dickens – Book 1, Chapters 1-4 (May)

The lovely Katie of Books and Things had the glorious idea of organising a Victorian-style readalong of her favourite Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend. What a Victorian-style readalong means is that we will be reading the novel as it was first published, a few chapters at a time, precisely how the Victorians themselves first read it.

our-mutual-friend1The novel started being serialised in May 1864 until November 1865, with either 3 or 4 chapters out every month. The idea is to follow this original publication pattern and read the chapters as they were published each month, from this May until November 2017. Katie has also created a Goodreads group where she explains all the details (I know my explanation is more likely to confuse rather than enlighten you) and where she has also prepared a schedule of which chapters are to be read each month.

Now, since I haven’t read as much Dickens as I’d have wanted to, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and participate in this readalong.  I had never heard of this book before, though, and after a quick research I found out it hasn’t been translated at all in Greek and so I had never heard about it growing up like Dickens’ other novels. Since I tend to feel quite intimidated by Dickens’ books, I think a few chapters per month will be a good idea to start with. I’m reading it in physical form while simultaneously listening to the audiobook, as it helps me concentrate more on the plot and pick up nuances I might have missed otherwise. So, I have already read the first 4 chapters of Our Mutual Friend and I’d like to share some of my initial thoughts with you. I will try to make it as much spoiler-free as possible, but you should proceed with caution nevertheless.

Chapter 1: The first chapter is more than intriguing and it definitely sets the mood for the story that is about to unfold. We are introduced to two characters, Gaffer and his daughter Lizzie, while they are on a boat at sea having just discovered something which is the source of an argument they have. Dickens’ language is rather challenging but his descriptions are vivid and eloquent.

Chapter 2: This must have been the most confusing second chapter I have encountered in my reading life so far! Forgetting the boat scene in the previous chapter, we are introduced to a brand new set of characters here, starting with the Veneerings, a couple who has recently become wealthy. They are hosting a dinner with many distinguishing guests, who Dickens doesn’t fail to comment on with the most poignant manner. His wit and irony is really evident in this chapter and I very much enjoyed this aspect of it.

During this dinner and the inevitable gossip that ensues, we learn of some John Harmon, who has just inherited his father’s fortune and is on his way back to England to claim it. However, some unfortunate news become known to the guests attending the dinner about John Harmon’s fortune. It definitely was an overwhelming chapter, with lots of new characters introduced, whose names I still cannot bring myself to fully remember.

Chapter 3: Continuing on from the previous chapter, two of our dinner guests, Mortimer and Eugene, set off to find out more about what happened to John Harmon. During this quest of theirs, they meet with Gaffer and Lizzie, the characters from chapter 1, who have some interesting information to share. A mysterious man appears, asking for information about John Harmon, too.

This chapter was much less confusing compared to the previous one, even more so because finally the characters come together and we find out what Gaffer and Lizzie were up to on the boat.

Chapter 4: We are introduced to yet another new set of characters here, the Wilton family and we learn that the daughter, Bella, was supposed to marry John Harmon. A man by the name of John Rokesmith appears to rent the Wilton’s first floor and even though he doesn’t seem very trustworthy, the family accepts as they are in dire need of money. We are informed, though, that this man is none other than the mysterious man of the previous chapter. The plot thickens slowly but steadily and I’m very intrigued to see what happens next.

Those first four chapters were surely challenging but very engaging, and I did enjoy Dickens’ witty writing, even though I was thoroughly overwhelmed by this plethora of characters. I decided to read about a chapter per week, because I’m reading this for the first time and I’m completely new to the characters and the plot, so I wouldn’t want to let too much time pass in between the chapters lest I forget who is who.

Chapters 5-7 are scheduled for June, so I will make a post discussing them at the end of the month.

Is anyone else participating at this readalong? Have you read Our Mutual Friend before? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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Transitional Authors

I begin this post with a question: what is the first adult novel which you remember reading?  As a child, I always had my nose within the pages of Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis, and had a slight error at the age of seven, when I decided that Moby-Dick looked as though it would keep me busy for a while, and began it only to put it down soon afterwards. face

At the age of eight, however, I vividly remember reading both Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird – the first my own choice, and the second a gift from my father – and immediately feeling as though I had unlocked a whole new world of wonders.  I swiftly followed these wonderful novels, enduring favourites of mine, with the likes of Wuthering Heights and A Christmas Carol, and haven’t looked back since.

Are the first adult novels which you read classed amongst your current favourites?  If you remember, what made you select the adult books which you did as a child or teenager?

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‘Marly’s Ghost’ by David Levithan ***

David Levithan’s Marly’s Ghost is a ‘remix’ of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The whole has been given a ‘Valentine’s twist’ to further set it apart from its original.  Marly’s Ghost begins in rather an interesting manner: ‘Marly was dead, to begin with.  There was no doubt whatsoever about that… When she went off the treatments, she decided she wanted to die at home, and she wanted me to be there with her family.  So I sat, and I waited, and I was destroyed… She was sixteen years old, but there in the bed she could have been ninety’.

The novel is narrated by Marly’s boyfriend of three years, Ben (whose real name is, perhaps rather predictably, Ebenezer), and is told from a position of retrospect, three months after her death.  Understandably, his grief is still raw as he laments upon the fate of his girlfriend and isolates himself from those around him: ‘It was ‘I needed distance for my own grief…  It was as if all the moments [of our relationship] had died along with her.  Everything had died.  Everything except me.  And that was arguable.  There were times when I felt I had died, too’.  The advent of Valentine’s Day is merely adding more pain and sadness for him, particularly as his friends are so intent upon marking the day in some way: ‘What’s Valentine’s Day about,’ he asks, ‘except the desperate search to find someone to spend Valentine’s Day with?’.

Ben is visited by the Ghosts of Love Past, Love Present, and Death, interestingly.  All three of these spirits, whilst wishing above all to alter his melancholy character, are interested in his ‘welfare’ and his ‘reclamation’.  Whilst Ben is a modern character in many ways, the voice which Levithan has crafted for Marly leans toward the highly Dickensian in terms of its phrasing and vocabulary: ‘I am still tied to this life.  Just as you have been tied to this death.  As long as the ties are there, I wander through the world and witness what you will not share.  While you’re caught, I’m caught’.  It is subtle changes like this which make Marly’s Ghost well worth a read, particularly if one is familiar with the original tale.

The parallels which Levithan has drawn with Dickens’ original are sometimes predictable, but the whole is well executed – for example, the door-knocker of Ben’s house turns into Marly’s face: ‘Before I could even gasp, she was gone’, and the consequent appearance of her ghost: ‘The chain she dragged was around her waist…  I saw it was an elongated version of the charm bracelet, with objects from our life clasped to each link.  Not just the golden bell and the golden house and the golden heart from the real bracelet [which she wore], but books I had given her, flowers from holidays, blankets shared after sex’.  The essence of Dickens’ morality tale has been kept, and the alteration of the still recognisable characters – a gay couple named Tiny and Tim, and a party-loving man called Fezziwig, for example – works well.

Marly’s Ghost is definitely not Levithan’s strongest book, but it is certainly an interesting one.  The novel is intelligently written, and Ben’s narrative voice feels realistic.  Although Levithan writes primarily for a young adult audience, he does not dumb anything down, and likes to explore dark and thought-provoking themes in his fiction.  As usual, he handles a deep and worrying topic marvellously well, and his skill as an author comes through on every page.  Marly’s Ghost is quite a quick read, but it is a multi-layered and thoughtful one nonetheless.

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Literary Advent Calendar: Day Twenty

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveller back to his own fireside and childhood home!
Charles Dickens

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!

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Flash Reviews (16th December 2013)

‘Moominvalley in November’ by Tove Jansson

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson ***** (re-read)
I adore seasonal reads, and had to squeeze this in during November.  As I am sure all of you know, Tove Jansson is one of my favourite authors, and the Moomins one of my most treasured series of books.  It will come as no surprise in that case when I write that Moominvalley in November is utterly enchanting, and it is certainly a book which can be revisited with delight every single year.  I love the way in which this particular Moomin tale is constructed, in that all of the chapters follow different characters.  It goes without saying that the illustrations are beautiful, to match the perfect writing throughout.  The imagery which Jansson uses is so powerful, and I love the way in which she describes autumn and the coming of winter, particularly with regard to the alteration of the surroundings in Moominvalley.

Old Crow by Shena Mackay **
I began this novella on the train to London, merely because it was one of the thinnest books on my to-read shelf, and one of the only ones which would fit comfortably into my bag without becoming dog-eared.  I had earmarked Shena Mackay as a monthly author for my now defunct online book group as she was recommended by one of the members, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from her writing.

Old Crow is a very odd little novella, and is incredibly dark throughout.  It tells the story of Coral, whose pregnancy with a man she is not married to leads her to live in squalor, shunned by the majority of the community who think that her ‘slum house’ is detrimental to everything around them.  My favourite element in the book was the way in which Mackay used the destruction of objects and surroundings to show how her protagonist was breaking over time.  Some of the scenes which were crafted were incredibly vivid.  Throughout, Mackay exemplifies how truly horrid people can be.  Some of the sections did not really interest me or hold my attention, but others pulled me right in.  I felt that some of the characters were a little underdeveloped, and the entirety was rather depressing in its plot and tone.  On the whole, I did enjoy Old Crow, but something about it has made me reluctant to read more of Mackay’s work.

‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ by Charles Dickens

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens **
As soon as the nights begin to draw in, I always feel the need for cosy novels.  Whilst my Dickens and Woolf readathon has not really gone to plan, I felt that Dickens fitted the description of a cosy author marvellously, and began The Mystery of Edwin Drood hoping to find a mini-masterpiece.  This is Dickens’ unfinished novel, the last which he penned.  I found the way in which some of the novel was written in the present tense interesting, but it was rather a slow book on the whole.  Not much really seemed to happen until Edwin’s murder, and little after that occurred too.  The characters felt a little flat at times – perhaps because they had not been fully developed.  It is most interesting to think where the story could have gone.