March and April Round Up – Or, Well, That was a Bust

2016 started so well, reading-wise. I was making a dent in my Classics Club list, I was reading some cracking new books, I was making some headway with some decent non-fiction. And then March and April happened, and my workload exploded, and my reading record took a nosedive.

It’s not that I’ve read nothing, exactly; more just that everything I’ve read has been somehow work-related. I spoke at two conferences this week, including one in front of around 300 people, and so I worked my way through ‘Talk Like TED’ in an attempt to conquer my suspicion that I’m an appalling public speaker. (I think it helped a little, but the jury’s still out.)

I also read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, and yes, it’s a shock that I haven’t read it before. Given that it sits at the intersection of feminism and high technology, it seemed like it would be right up my street, and it was.

I have two other non-fiction books on the go at present – The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, which was recommended to me by a friend at work, and Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, who was also a speaker at this event last week. The former is good, very witty and engaging, but has led me straight to Scandal, which I’m currently binge-watching. The Matthew Syed book is interesting, but I’m finding myself needing to work through it in small chunks.

So, that’s been my two months in books. There have been signs recently of me getting my fiction mojo back – books that I’d like to read, if only I had the time – and I have two 11-hour flights coming up in May, so I’m hopeful of getting back on track before long. That’s the plan, anyway…..

Review – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

‘In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’

I could quote from this novel endlessly. Unbelievably, this was the first time I’d read anything by Virginia Woolf. I’m so glad I waited. I genuinely don’t know how I might have reacted to this when I was younger; I get the feeling I might have gulped it down all at once, and not really let it touch the sides.

Instead, I took it slowly, reading this relatively slim novel in even slimmer chunks. I think you have to – or at least, I had to – to truly appreciate the ‘waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’.

A brief note on plot, although plot really isn’t the point. Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-something bastion of British privilege, is throwing a party. The narrative follows her thoughts, and those of others – mainly her ex-lover Peter, and a shell-shocked veteran Septimus – through the course of a single day in June. During the course of that day, they wander all around central London, occasionally overlapping, although Septimus’s story is broadly independent of the others. Their minds, though, are elsewhere; in Clarissa and Peter’s case, largely in the past, when they were young and things were different.

I have said this about other classics before, but I was surprised by how, well, modern it all felt. This was partly the style (the somewhat breathless stream-of-consciousness style means this novel will definitely be one I go back to; the access to the characters’ most intimate thoughts (and even more so, their thought processes) is familiar to us now, but was still pretty new in the early 1920s). It was also, though, the subject matter. Despite the shadow of World War I, I wasn’t expecting to read about a shell-shocked soldier. His story forms an agonising counterpoint to the main event, and adds depth to a plot which could otherwise – on the surface, at least – have seemed a little frothy.

The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Clarissa. Married to a man who solemnly declares ‘that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides the relationship was not one that he approved)’, she is serene and respectable on the outside, whilst the narrative ranges over a complex and exhausting inner life, from worrying about aging and death, to wishing she could have done everything differently, to being – at times – happy, almost content. I found this complexity and depth wildly exhilarating; like seeing the world with the colours turned up. ‘It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.’ That must have been an easy thing to believe, after the horrors of the Great War; maybe it’s an even easier thing to believe today. The joy of this novel, for me, though, was its demonstration of exactly the opposite: ‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.’ Quite so.

****

Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

*** 

 

Reading Round-Up – February 2016

A few days early, as I am off to Amsterdam this afternoon for a long weekend, and who knows whether I’ll be in any fit state to post anything on Monday…

Books read in February:

I’m really pleased with the progress I’m making on my Classics Club list, which until the start of this year was languishing a bit unloved following its creation in November 2014. I’ve slowed down a bit towards the end of the month (life, plus a less gripping read), but I still think that I should have finished my eighth book of the month by the end of February. My eight are:

  • Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – LOVED this. Review here . I also had the pleasure of recommending this to a new-to-classics friend, and watching her fall in love with it too. ****
  • We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I recently read that this had been given free to all 16 year olds in Sweden, and I can only applaud the Swedes for their foresight. Short enough to hold the attention, and forceful without being angry, I consider this a must-read. ****
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I have been waiting for two weeks to be ready to review this, and I’m not yet. Soon, I hope. It contains multitudes. ****
  • The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley – It’s not that this was bad, exactly, but it seemed pretty facile compared to the other books I’ve been reading – like a debutante in a room full of Nobel laureates. The sense of place (New York) was good, and it jogged along at a decent pace; I found the story and characters, though, to be sadly lacking. **
  • The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes – Interesting, and with big stuff to say, but at times more like an essay than a novel. Review here ***
  • Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf – I can see this being a novel I go back and back and back to. The descriptions of London, the stream of consciousness, the incredibly modern picture of what war can do to a psyche – I liked this a lot, and I think I will like it even better on a second reading. ****
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys – This was a re-read, although it’s been more than ten years since I read it for the first time. I was sent back to WSS by Rebecca, as another reaction to Jane Eyre (which I am also planning to revisit, later this year I hope). I got significantly more out of it this time around. Another novel with a strong sense of place and a compelling portrait of colonial doom, I found this to be tiny (124 pages, in my copy) but perfectly formed. ****
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers – The jury’s still out on this one. I’m about halfway through, and hoping to finish it today or over the weekend. It has had its moments, but I’m not quite sold on it just yet.

Best book of the month: It was a tightly run thing this month, but the award ultimately goes to Rebecca, with a strong second place for Americanah, and Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea sharing the final spot on the podium. I realise this is fully half of the books I read this month, but they really were all that good.

Which sort of brings me onto a bit of a dilemma. Most of my books so far this year have been four-star reads. I’ve thought long and hard about each one of those ratings, and concluded that they’re the right ones, but it is starting to dilute the value of the ratings system – sort of like giving everyone an A. I don’t want to read bad books just to prop up the bell curve, and I don’t want to be unduly harsh to some incredible pieces of writing. I’m still mulling it over.

My other highlight of the month was discovering the great #AW80books challenge – I’m already plotting a fictional trip to Amsterdam to match my real one, lining up what I think should be a bit of a lighter read – The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton.

Reading goals for March: Keep it up, really; life is set to get busier as spring arrives, and I’d like to try to keep up both the quality and volume of my reading from the first couple of months of the year. And I’m giving myself permission to put my classics list aside and focus on diversity for a while – #AW80books should help with that. Of course, given how bad I am at sticking to plans, I will probably read nothing but Dickens or something for the next three months…

Book Review(s) – Alternative Histories

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick **

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth ****

(Time And Time Again – Ben Elton ****; 11.22.63 – Stephen King ***; Fatherland – Robert Harris ***; Dominion – CJ Sansom ****; The Children’s War – JN Stroyar *****)

 

Regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I like history. One of my favourite things about it is the spine-tingling realisation that, on the turn of a knife edge, it could all have gone so very differently.

This is why I will read pretty much any ‘alternative history’ I can get my hands on. Most of the ones I’ve read seem to be along the lines of ‘What if the Germans had won World War II’; I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the people who write them. Last year I read one which broke that mould, Time And Time Again by Ben Elton, which focused instead on World War I. I’ve (rather snobbishly) always thought of Ben Elton as a bit of a populist writer, but Time And Time Again made me eat my words; it was completely different to what I expected, in a really good way. 11.22.63 I found to be less well executed, but made from the same sort of mould.

Towards the end of 2015, I became temporarily fixated by Amazon’s series, The Man In The High Castle. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend it very highly – although be warned, Rufus Sewell will give you nightmares. In mourning after watching the last episode, I downloaded the book, and read it over Christmas. Well, what a disappointment – I found it to be fragmented, linguistically uninspiring, and with really poorly-drawn characters. I haven’t read anything else by Philip K Dick, so I have no idea whether that’s characteristic or not – but to be honest, after that experience, I’m not particularly inclined to find out. (I am, though, looking forward to Season 2 of the TV series. I know, I’m a heathen.)

To rectify the situation, I picked up The Plot Against America, which I last read when it was first published, which somehow – horrifyingly – was more than ten years ago. This is also an alternative history, although it doesn’t go quite so far as to show Germany winning the war – rather, it is an imagining of how the early 1940s may have gone, had the US elected an anti-Semitic president in 1940. This was almost the complete opposite of The Man In The High Castle – the story is told through the eyes of a young boy, and the characterisation of him and his family and the rest of the neighbourhood is almost perfect, at times to the point of being heartbreaking. Because this isn’t only an alternative history story; it’s also a coming of age story and a snapshot of a ‘real’ social history which makes the ‘alternative’ stuff seem all too plausible.

To finish, a brief shout-out to three other alternative WWII novels which I read a number of years ago, but which I remember as pretty good (Fatherland), very good (Dominion), and one of the best books I’ve ever read (The Children’s War). All three focus on a post-WWII defeated Europe, with Nazi atrocities proceeding unchecked and conquered people trying to live their lives as best they can. Dominion gets an extra star over Fatherland because of the writing, especially the first scene (a gripping and memorable reimagining of the British Cabinet meeting in 1940 where Churchill took power…or didn’t). The Children’s War gets 5 stars for its unflinching plot (seriously, there is one scene in particular where I had a Joey Tribbiani moment and almost put the book in the freezer), complex characters and sheer richness of detail. It’s not that easy to get hold of, but if you only read one book about what life might have been like if the Nazis had won the war, it really should be this one.

Any other alternative history recommendations gratefully received!

Around the World in 80 Books (#AW80Books) Challenge

I think I may have mentioned once or twice (or more) that I like to travel. Well, ‘like’ is a bit of an understatement. If they had Travellers’ Anonymous meetings, somebody probably would have dragged me into one by the hair a long time ago.

I think I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d like to start to read more diversely. This is something I was pretty good at when I was younger (I did a postcolonial fiction module at university, and got a little bit obsessed, especially with Indian fiction), but I’ve lost it a little as I’ve got older.

Well, imagine my joy when I discovered yesterday that Sarah and Lucy (over at the fantastic Hard Book Habit) have had the rather brilliant idea of trying to go Around the World in 80 Books . This challenge literally could not have been more ‘me’ if I’d thought it up myself.

The gist of it is, participants should read their way around the world in 80 books. It’s very low-pressure, with no deadline and no set itinerary – and only one or two suggested ground rules, such as trying to hit every continent (ideas for Antarctica, anybody?), including a sea-based book, and reading one book which features travel (Orient Express, hot air balloon, road trip etc). One of my favourite things is that books can be fiction or non-fiction, so it really is pretty broad – which makes it perfect for those of us who are easily bored…

As you may have picked up by now, I’m not very good at sticking to plans (travel, reading, or life in general!), but I have set up this page to track my round-the-world reading from the beginning of 2016.

Now, if only British Airways gave airmiles for fictional travels…

 

Random (sort-of) Bookish Thoughts -14 February 2016

I am writing this from the cafe of the British Library. I know, how cool am I, hanging out at the British Library on a Sunday afternoon. I have just been to the BL’s current exhibition, ‘West Africa – Word, Symbol, Song’. It rounds off quite a cultural couple of weeks (by BooksAhoy standards, at least) and, as some of my recent outings have been at least tangentially book-related, I thought I’d share:

  • The Friday before last, a group of friends and I saw the comedian Isy Suttie, for a friend’s birthday. This is probably the most tenuous link but, well, she has just written a book, so her current tour is a cross between a stand-up comedy tour and a sort of book promotion junket. The show (and the book, apparently) are all about getting to your late twenties/early thirties and finding everybody growing up around you, whilst you are still behaving like a nineteen-year-old. I can relate.
  • On Monday, I saw the European Union Chamber Orchestra. I didn’t think this would be book-related, but during the first half they played a symphony by Shostakovich – the subject of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (review published yesterday). Complete coincidence, but a nice one!
  • Yesterday afternoon, I watched the Saturday matinee of As You Like It at the National Theatre. It’s not one of the plays I was particularly familiar with, but the staging was excellent (in particular the transition from civilisation – a fluorescent modern office – to a Forest of Arden built from suspended office furniture. It sounds weird, but it was hugely atmospheric, and the play itself was great – a reminder of how very Shakespearean modernity really is, or maybe vice versa. There is a good article about Rosalie Craig (Rosalind) and Polly Findlay (director) here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/nov/02/as-you-like-it-shakespeare-national-theatre-london-rosalie-craig-polly-findlay-interview – although, if you follow the link to the appalling review of Polly Findlay’s Merchant of Venice, I actually thought that production was pretty amazing too.
  • I wouldn’t have come to the British Library’s West Africa exhibition if I hadn’t recently read ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m glad I did, though. There was a little too much history and not quite enough literature, which is an observation I’ve made about some British Library exhibitions before, but overall it’s a pretty minor grumble.

Reading-wise, I read The Ramblers (which isn’t great) and am halfway through Mrs Dalloway (which is). I also owe the blog reviews of Americanah, Exposure, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and I’d like to write one of Scottsboro as well. Behind, as always. I’m really glad to be reading, though. For the last couple of years at this time, I’ve slipped into a late-winter-early-spring reading slump; I’m glad it doesn’t seem to be an annual thing!

Happy Sunday everyone!