3

Update: Authors I Would Like To Read This Year – The Bad

During 2021, I decided not to set myself any specific reading challenges, preferring instead to pick up books on a whim. Regardless, I did make a tentative list of authors whose work I had not read before, but wanted to try. You can see the full list here. Of course, I haven’t met all of the challenges; I became a little sceptical as to whether I really wanted to read the only Vikram Seth available to me in my local library, A Suitable Boy, which comes in at well over one thousand pages, and I went off reading Naipaul entirely after reading a slew of sexist comments which he had made over the years.

As you can see, I got off to rather an inauspicious start. The books below – all of which I awarded just two stars to, and could not wait to finish – were the first three which I began with. I must admit that I didn’t actually get much further than this with my challenge. The moral of the story is that I just don’t do that well with structured yearly reads; I am far better with making a weekly TBR to stick to. This is a practice I began during March, and which I have enjoyed putting together every single week. I will be continuing with this, and this alone, during 2022; at least it’s something I have proven I can stick to!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke **

Attica Locke was the first of these which I picked up, beginning with Bluebird, Bluebird, the first book in her ‘Highway 59’ series. On the face of it, her books really intrigue me; she writes thrillers based in Texas which, alongside quite gruesome murders or crimes, deal with wider issues within the community – inequality, poverty, racism, and injustice. I have heard a great deal about her books – the majority of it incredibly positive – and fancied sinking my teeth into a thriller set somewhere rather different to the UK- and US-based thrillers which I generally gravitate toward.

Whilst I cannot fault the pace or plotting of Bluebird, Bluebird, there was not a great deal about it which personally appealed to me. The prose style is very matter-of-fact, with relatively few descriptions; things within the novel are told, not shown. It was rather too hardboiled in style for my taste. Whilst one does get a good feel for the landscape, the characters are focused upon far more. Sadly, these characters – whom I felt were introduced in far too quick a succession – feel two-dimensional. They are not quite realistic, and have not been fleshed out enough to be believable. In consequence, some of their motives seemed strange and unlikely.

There are rather a few tropes within the novel which I was expecting, and parts of it felt rather predictable. I am pleased that I started my project with such a lauded novel, but I can safely say that I will not be continuing with this series – even the cliffhanger ending did not encourage me to read further – and probably will not pick up anything by Locke again, either.

The Gathering by Anne Enright **

I read Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, at the end of 2020, and must admit that I found it rather underwhelming. I wondered if her style would suit the longer form better, and decided to download the audiobook of The Gathering from my library’s app. I love listening to books with Irish narrators, and whilst the delivery of this one was undoubtedly good – at first, at least – I had a few issues with the text itself.

The story within this novel is a bleak one, but I loved the central idea of the ‘gathering’ of the title, when a family of siblings meet one another en masse, after their brother drowns in the sea off the coast of Brighton. Unfortunately, this gathering took up barely any space in the novel, and seemed rather shoehorned in toward the end. The rest of the book goes off on random tangents about the characters’ difficulties, much of which is centered around abuse. Everything, for this narrator, harks back to sex, and I did not feel that this obsession actually added a great deal to the whole.

As I began to listen to The Gathering, I found it quite engaging. However, after a few chapters had passed, the way in which Enright had crafted the novel began to frustrate me. She can certainly write, but this was rather too rambling for me. There are far too many characters to keep track of in a relatively short book, particularly at the outset. The listening experience quickly became rather chaotic, with rushed sentences, and nothing feeling quite clear enough. Had I not picked up her short stories beforehand, I would probably try and read something else of Enright’s in physical form. However, following The Gathering, I just do not feel that she is an author whose work I could wholeheartedly enjoy.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch **

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children really appealed to me, drawn as I am to books set within the landscape of Eastern Europe. The novel is shaped around a ‘heart-stopping image’ taken by a photographer, of a young girl running from the explosion which engulfs her home, and kills her family. This photograph has won prizes and a great deal of acclaim, and it soon becomes a ‘subject of obsession’ for the photographer’s best friend.

At first, I must admit that I was enjoying this book. The prose is beautifully rich in the first couple of chapters, and feels almost fairytale-like; it makes much use of colour and space, and focuses on both the known and the unknown. Yuknavitch has an interesting approach to writing, using lots of single, snappy sentences alongside very long and descriptive ones. She flits between perspectives and settings throughout, something which I usually enjoy in fiction. However, the fact that none of the characters whatsoever were named until very late on, and were described only by their professions – ‘The Poet, ‘The Playwright’ – did become a little confusing, as they were not explicitly different from one another on the whole. Sometimes it felt as though their professions were the only things which set them apart, but as these professions were almost entirely creative, I feel as though any distinction was lost.

There are some memorable scenes and images here, but overall, The Backs of Small Children has left me cold. I did like the strange, almost otherworldly feel of the book at first, but this felt almost overwhelming as it went on. The primal, animalistic edge, with its often unnecessary obsession with sex, suffused everything, and I regularly found the novel uncomfortable to read. It did not hold my interest all of the way through, either. Whilst the beginning of The Backs of Small Children felt promising, I found it too muddled a book to really enjoy. I am now conflicted as to whether I would read anything else by Yuknavitch; if it all follows a similar pattern to this novel, then I am happy to move on to other authors.

I am afraid that as I did not get much further than this with my challenge, there will be no further updates.

6

The TED Reading List

I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018.  It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before.  Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.

 

1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.  Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’

 

3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.  While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.  Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘

 

7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘

 

8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world.  In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’

 

9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’

 

 

Which of these books take your fancy?  Have you read any of them?

4

Three Books About Books

Here, I have chosen to collect together three books which encompass the joy of childhood reading.  One of them, Lucy Mangan’s memoir Bookworm, discusses the many books which shaped her as a child.  The other two are beautiful picture books, one based on the life of Virginia Woolf, and the other on Jane Eyre.

 

bookworm-lucy-mangan-97817847092281. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan ****
In Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan offers up a wonderful slice of nostalgia. Although older than I, Mangan read many of the same books which I did during my childhood, and recalls them with such humour and tenderness. Alongside her own recollections of the literature which shaped her, Mangan offers much informative detail about how children’s books came about, and how they have evolved over time. I really appreciated the structure of Bookworm, and found its prose engaging and really enjoyable.

 

2. Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear ***** 515fzs0onsl
I am undoubtedly too old for picture books, but consistently find Kyo Maclear’s work enchanting.  When I found a copy of Virginia Wolf online, I borrowed it, and immediately started to read.  As anyone who knows me even a little will recall, Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, and I was keen to see how Maclear would interpret her story.

Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations are beautiful, and I appreciated the way in which they worked so well with Maclear’s prose.  The book has an almost Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland feel to it; it is both otherworldly and recognisable.  I love the use made of the original material, and feel as though the author has interpreted Woolf’s mental health in a way which can be understood by younger readers.  Beautiful and unusual, with such attention to detail, Virginia Wolf was just even better than I had hoped.

 

51tzahbqlbl._sx375_bo1204203200_3. Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt *****
I have been keen to read Fanny Britt’s work for such a long time, but have never been able to find it, secondhand or otherwise.  I was so pleased, therefore, when I spotted a copy of Jane, the Fox and Me in my local library.  Britt writes her own modern-day story, about a young girl being picked on at school, and weaves in the story of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Both stories worked so well together, and I was enchanted throughout.  I loved the illustration style, and found the story rather moving, and so relatable.  I’m so pleased that I finally had the chance to read Jane, the Fox and Me, and will keenly look out for more of Britt’s work in future.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which is the last book about books which you read?

2

Best Books of 2018

I somehow completely forgot to make a wrap-up post for my reading in 2017, but was determined to include one on the blog this year.  Wrap-up posts are a lovely way of seeing what I have achieved during my reading year, as well as pointing out some wonderful tomes which I would highly recommend to fellow readers.

I have decided to split this up into monthly lists.  For some of the months during 2018, I have read far less wonderful books than others, as always seems to be the case.  I am including only five-star reads here, and am thus showcasing only my absolute favourites.  I have also written the original date of publication and genre beside each title, in order to see if there has been any overlap in my reading this year.

January:
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (1958; Gothic, historical fiction) 9781444711073
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (2016; psychological novel, translation)

February:
The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter (1908; children’s; reread)
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963; mystery, literary fiction, translation; review here)
We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood (2014; historical fiction)

9781921520280March:
Women and Power by Mary Beard (2017; non-fiction, Classics)
Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry (2015; poetry)
The Spare Room by Helen Garner (2008; literary fiction)

April:
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (2013; short stories; review here)
Selected Poems 1923-1958 by e.e. cummings (1962; poetry; reread)
Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (1927; literary fiction; review here)
Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (1971; poetry; reread)
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (2008; mystery, literary fiction, translation; review here)
The Colour by Rose Tremain (2003; historical fiction; review here)

May: 9781408842102
– Salvage the Bones 
by Jesmyn Ward (2011; fiction)
– Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore (1994; historical fiction; reread; review here)
– Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918; fiction; review here)
– The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (2009; fiction; review here)
Anne Frank: The Biography 
by Melissa Muller (1998; non-fiction, biography; review here)

June:
– 
Virginia Woolf: The Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat (2015; non-fiction/biography)

9781908745132July:
– Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair (1923; short stories; review here)
– The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013; fiction; review here)
– Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector (collection published in 2018; short stories; translation; review here)
– The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson (1945; children’s fiction; translation; reread)
– The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985; fiction; review here)
– The Vigilante by John Steinbeck (collection published in 2018; short stories; review here)
– The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson (collection published in 2018; short stories; review here)

August: 9780393324914
– The Lost Garden 
by Helen Humphreys (2002; historical fiction; review here)
– Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe (collection published in 2018; essays; review here)
– The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger (collection published in 2018; essays/autobiography; review here)
– The Gigolo by Francoise Sagan (collection published in 2018; short stories; translation; review here)

September:
– The Haunted Boy 
by Carson McCullers (collection published in 2018; short stories; review to come)
– A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf (1921; short story; reread)
– A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (1949; fiction; review to come)

9781405934138October:
People in the Room 
by Nora Lange (1966; fiction; translation; review to come)
– Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry (2017; fiction, retellings; review to come)
– Poems of the Great War, 1914-1918 (1998; poetry)
– Nothing But the Night by John Williams (1948; fiction)
– The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018; non-fiction)

November:
– Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991; historical fiction; review to come)
– Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018; fiction)
– The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo (2018; adaptation)

December:
– The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (2006; fiction; review to come) 1758967
– The majority of Carol Ann Duffy‘s Christmas poetry books
– Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939; children’s poetry; reread)
– Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928; fiction; review to come)

 

As ever, my favourites have largely been fiction choices, which fall into various sub-genres.  I have read a lot of wonderful non-fiction this year, but not much of it has made it into my top books list, unfortunately.  Have you read any of these books?  Which have been your top picks of your 2018 reading?

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

Challenge-Free 2019

Each year since I have been seriously recording my reading, and particularly since I have been blogging, I have decided to participate in year-long reading challenges.  This year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge took me only four months to complete, but in the past, I have tended to get a little bored by the challenges which I set myself several months beforehand, and other, non-challenge reading has taken over instead.  This issue has been complicated further by my studies; I had so much to read whilst doing my Master’s that I wanted to make the most of the reading which I was able to do in my spare time, and did not want to have to adhere too much to challenge conventions.

capture1-1

From Goodreads

Despite the evident interest which reading challenges give me (for the first few months of the year, at least!) I have decided that I will not set myself any reading goals during 2019.  I want to be able to pick up books as and when I feel like reading them, rather than having to squeeze in books I am not as interested in, just because they contribute to a particular challenge.  I will also have far less time in which to read during 2019, as I will be working full-time and expect to be commuting every weekday.

I am taking part in a project with my sister, in which we are going to be ticking off every book mentioned in the Gilmore Girls, a series which she loved.  I engineered the challenge in order to encourage her to read, but she is adamant that she’s going to watch as many dramatised versions as she can find, and then read only what she can’t get hold of on Netflix…  I will, of course, be reading each title.  Our deadline goal is the end of 2020, so it should be doable!

I will be participating in the Goodreads yearly challenge, merely in terms of a set number of books which I want to read, although I haven’t decided on my goal yet.  In 2018, I let my mother select it for me; she went for 275 books.  The number which I settle for will more than likely be far lower next year.  I want to set myself a reachable goal whilst still challenging myself, but have no idea how many books I will be likely to get through.

What are your personal experiences with reading challenges?  Do you like to participate in them, or do they detract from the enjoyment which reading should bring you?  What are your goals for reading during 2019?

6

TBR Goals

Some of you may remember that I embarked on Project Read My Own Books (post here) a couple of years ago, in order to reduce my looming to-read pile.  I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and vowed that I would endeavour to keep my TBR as small as I could afterwards.  I have had a tendency in the past to buy lots whenever I go book shopping, and then do not tend to get around to picking up those tomes for quite a while afterwards.  The same happens on my Kindle; I have a few purchased books on my device which I have yet to read, as with the likes of Netgalley, they sometimes get sidelined.

4ab08e00d69432bef99bb57d53475190

From http://www.pinterest.com; largely representative of the size of my current TBR…

I have therefore set myself some TBR goals.  Whether this will work or not, I do not know at this juncture, but I have been trying to read through all of the books which I own before buying any more.  My birthday is next week, and I know full well that I am receiving the box set of the fifty new Penguin Mini Modern Classics (yay!), so my TBR count will spiral considerably.

However, I want to get myself to around the 15-20 books mark on my to-read pile as soon as I possibly can.  I think with a manageable number such as this, which will hopefully never exceed the 20 (here’s hoping!), that I will be able to manage the books which I own a little better, and get through them within weeks of adding them to my pile, rather than months (or years…).  This marker will also stop me having to put myself on book-buying bans, which, let’s face it, never work, and simply make me more eager to browse and buy!  I will also be able to concentrate on reading a lot of the books which I have earmarked on various to-read lists, and have not yet got to.

In order to chart my progress, I will be making monthly, or bi-monthly posts detailing the number of books on my TBR on the first, the number of books read from it, and the number added.  How do you think I will fare with having a smaller TBR?  Do you have similar goals yourself?

2

One From the Archive: ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox.  It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it.  If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.

9780061999857After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’.  Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms.  Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared.  Laughter.  Words.  Books…  That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life.  I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’.  For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.

In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read…  All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’.  Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son.  She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations.  I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience.  Books would give me all that and more…  My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’  As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger.  Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake.  Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project.  I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does.  This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does.  I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend.  I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.

Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order.  I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another.  Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.

The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.

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‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ by Ann Morgan **

I love undertaking reading projects, such as Ann Morgan does as the basis for Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer.  I have never, however, read only translated literature throughout the course of a year, as Morgan does.  She decided, when the Olympics came to London in 2012, that she would read one work published in every country in the world during the course of the year, and blog about them.  This sounds like an easier project than she found it, on the face of it; firstly, the difficulty of deciding how many countries are in the world came about (the numbers differ wildly dependent on who is being asked), and is discussed in depth in the first chapter, before she discusses the trouble which she sometimes had in getting her hands on a single book from some of the countries.

I had read several mixed reviews about Reading the World before I began to read, and the doubt which some readers have had in Morgan’s approach to her book are, I feel, justified.  I thought that Reading the World would be like Nina Sankovitch’s wonderful account of a yearly reading journey, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, with a lot of focus upon the books chosen, the reasons for them, and a series of personal thoughts which follow the reading.  Instead, Morgan presents what feels like a series of loosely connected essays, talking at length about the ways in which we define world literature, and addressing things like cultural identity and heritage, and the kinds of books which tend to be translated into English.9781846557873

The majority of the books which Morgan read during 2012 are not even mentioned in the body of the text; rather, they have been fashioned into a list at the back of the book, which is ordered alphabetically by country.  These entries do not always include the translator, and feel a little inconsistent as a result.

Reading the World is undoubtedly an intelligent book, but it is not one which I would recommend to the general reader.  For the most part, Morgan’s prose is fine, but in several places it came across as clunky, repetitive, and even a little patronising.  There is an academic, or perhaps just a highbrow, feel to it, which does not make it an easy tome to dip in and out of at will, like many other books about books tend to be; it errs toward the heavy-going in places.

It isn’t that Reading the World is an uninteresting book; it is simply not at all what I was expecting.  I would go as far to say that it is more involved with the translation and publishing processes, than with reading the end results.  I did read Reading the World through to its conclusion, but did not find it a very engaging book.  All in all, the ideas which went toward the book were far better than its execution, which seems a great shame.  I have, perhaps fittingly, left my copy in one of those sweet little free libraries in France.

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‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.

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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?