Sunday Retrospective ~ December 16th

Do you ever hit one of those patches when whatever the book you pick up it just doesn’t seem to hit the spot? That’s what this week has been like for me.  With some books I haven’t even got past the first few pages, others I have regretfully put to one side after a few chapters and then there has been one that I have stuck with and will finish, but I’m not certain that I will read any more in the series.

I think I am finally going to have to call time on my attempts to read anything from the British Library Crime Classics imprint.  While I was in the library at the early part of the week I picked up a copy of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case determined that this time I would see the book through to the end.  The premise concerns a murder that the police have failed to solve and to which the members of a club devoted to amateur sleuths then undertake to offer their own solutions. I got halfway through the first proffered solution, decided that I didn’t want to spend any more time with a group of (as it seemed to me) self-satisfied Smart Alecs bound to do better than the poor lower class policeman and took the book back.

OK, I know that much of what I was objecting to is part and parcel of the convention  within the restraints of which the authors were working, but that didn’t make it any the more palatable.  And, although I seem to be having difficulty finding them at the moment, there are too many books out there waiting to be read for me to spend time with a series that just doesn’t do it for me.

A book that I have almost finished and will complete this evening, even though it has been a bit of a slog, is Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, the first of James Runcie’s Granchester Mysteries.  I seem to remember trying to get into this when it first came out and failing miserably.  This time, although I feel that Runcie is trying to mimic many of the conventions that annoy me in the British Library collection, I have managed to get within striking distance of the end.  Perhaps it wins out in contrast with the Berkeley.  The book is set in the 1950s and part of what irritates me is the fact that much of what it depicts is a series of stereotypes of the period.  I know about the fifties; I was there.  If you want a more accurate portrayal of the time while sticking with the crime genre then I suggest that you try Laura Wilson’s Ted Stratton novels, which move from the war years through the following decade. They ring much more true.  This has a feeling of Downton Abbey about it: the past recollected and distorted through rosy tinted glasses.  I was also put off by the fact that it isn’t just one straight through narrative, but a series of stories, linked by the slowly developing relationship of Sidney and Amanda Kendall.  However, I’ve stuck with it, partly because I hadn’t got anything else immediately to hand but also because halfway through Sidney is given a black Labrador puppy.  I am a sucker for puppies of any sort and for Labs in particular. The occasional mention of Dickens and his exploits has kept me going.  Whether or not I shall continue with the rest of the series is another matter.  Does anyone know if the subsequent books are just one story?  If they are also a series of shorts then I don’t think I shall bother.

Of course, part of this dry spell is of my own making.  I have several books that I am hoarding for the Christmas period, including the new Tana French, The Wych Elm, the second in Mike Craven’s Avison Fluke series and forthcoming books by both James Oswald and Kate London. Come Boxing Day I shall shut up shop for the rest of the week and simply wallow in the latest offerings of four of my favourite authors.  At least there is something to look forward to.

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Desert Island Authors

At a recent book group meeting someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives. This is, I hope, a hypothetical question that sometimes comes into my mind if I happen to catch the end of the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, where a guest is asked to chose not only the eight pieces of music they would take with them were they to be castaway on said desert island,  but also to nominate a book to sit alongside The Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare.  (As an aside, people often ask for a specific translation of The Bible, but I have never heard anyone ask the, for me, far more important question concerning which edition of the Collected Works; believe me, it matters!) Sometimes the castaway tries to cheat by asking for a group of books by an author, say all the Barchester Towers novels, to be bound together in one volume.  I sympathise, but it isn’t really playing that particular game.  It does, however, raise the question of which author I would chose, a question that we found ourselves discussing at our last meeting.

In the time that we had it was only possible to give just a snap answer, with writers like Trollope and Dickens springing immediately to mind, but coming away and giving it greater consideration later I began to think rather more seriously about the criteria I ought to be bringing to bare. Just from a practical point of view, I suppose the more books they have written, the better.  However good the work might be, I can’t see me opting for a one hit wonder.  But, being prolific doesn’t necessarily walk hand in hand with producing work that will stand the test of time. Which is going to be more important?

Having put to one side for the moment the temptation to choose an author simply because they are on that list of classic writers who have stood the test of time, I found myself considering popular, but rather more light-weight candidates: people to whose work I turn when I am having one of those days.  Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s, come to mind. (As a second aside, do you know that you can now get St Mary’s merchandise?  I am so definitely having a mug with an honour and a privilege on it.). There is also a 60s and 70s writer, Jane Duncan, who wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in the Highlands during the early part of the twentieth century and her time living in the Caribbean during the 1950s, when her husband’s work took them out to one of the last great sugar plantations in private ownership. Neither of these authors is likely to win prizes for great literature, but what they both do is create a cast of characters with whom I want to spend time.  I know that Taylor’s Max and Peterson and Markham aren’t real, and that however much I wish it wasn’t the case, Duncan’s Janet, George and Tom owe as much to her imagination as they do to the real life members of her family; none of that matters.  The characters these writers have created are ‘friends’.  There is an entire set of both series on the kindle that goes everywhere with me and if I find myself with just five minutes to spare and don’t want to simply pick away at whatever I happen to have currently on the go, I will select a favourite episode and relive a much loved moment.  (Aside the third – there was an article in one of this morning’s papers about boots with soles that heat up in cold weather and I automatically found myself asking if their design was based on Bashford’s testicles.   Most of you will have no idea what I am talking about, but anyone who has read Taylor’s What Can Possibly Go Wrong will have raised exactly the same question.  Has Professor Rapson finally got it right?)

I found the fact that I was being drawn to writers whose work is at least as much based on character as on plot surprising, because I have always thought of myself as being a plot driven reader but perhaps a writer who appeals just because of their plots isn’t the one to choose in this scenario.  You can only mine a work for its plot just so many times.  However, neither Taylor nor Duncan are using fiction to ask penetrating questions about the human personality and the way in which society works and perhaps over time I would need that.  Choosing an author with those criteria in mind is going to take greater thought and a second post.  Do you have any suggestions?

Procrastination

IMG_0093There was an article on the radio this morning about procrastination.  I’m afraid I was in the middle of getting breakfast and so didn’t hear what had brought this topic to the fore but I did hear someone talking about putting together to-do lists and allowing things that they really didn’t want to tackle to slip down to the bottom of an ever growing catalogue of tasks that they were not getting round to dealing with.

I am actually pretty good at addressing things that need doing around the house as soon as they arise.  I suspect that this has something to do with my Aspergers.  I am only really comfortable when I know that everything is in its place and functioning properly.   Nothing annoys me more than to be thwarted in my attempts to ensure that this is the case than incompetent companies who promise one thing and then do either something entirely different or, more often, nothing at all. And yes, my current electricity suppliers I am looking straight at you. However, adding yet another book to my ‘to be read as soon as I can get a copy’ list this morning, I realised that I am not so well disciplined when it comes to reading.

I have kept lists like this for as long as I can remember. Every now and then they become so long and so unruly that I simply abandon them and start again from scratch.  The current one, I note, dates back to the spring of 2014.  Because nearly all my books these days come from the library, there are two main reasons why individual titles slide further and further down the list.  The first was epitomised this morning.  I read a review of a debut crime novel that seemed exactly my type of read. However, when I interrogated the catalogues of both local library authorities neither of them had ordered a copy.  This is perfectly understandable given that this is a new author and that the book isn’t actually published until the beginning of September.  Of course they are going to wait and see how it is received before splashing out their limited resources.  When I was in their position I would have done the same. But, how long will I go on remembering to check and see if they have bought a copy?  You used to be able to ask for books that you wanted to see on their shelves to be acquired, but as money has become ever tighter, this is a service that is no longer available.  As we get further and further away from the date of publication and more and more novels take my eye, this book will sink ever deeper into the lists and I will probably never get round to reading it.

The second reason that books tend to disappear into the depths of the tbr list is almost the opposite of the first.  These are books that are not only bought by the library but are ordered weeks, sometimes months in advance of publication because they are by established and popular writers.  As soon as they appear on the catalogue I put in my reservation just so that I won’t find myself at position 40 something in the waiting list for the one or two copies they have been able to afford.  What inevitably then happens is that just like the buses on certain well known routes, half a dozen of them turn up at the same time and are then vying for my attention along with all the other material I am reading for book groups and courses.  Automatically I cherry pick the ones that I am most desperate to read and at least two or three will have to be returned to the library unread.  Not only is this frustrating for me but it means I have books on my shelves that other readers could be enjoying.  This is not an example of what is commonly known as ‘best practice’.  Some of these I will reserve again, but others slip through the net and down to the bottom of that notorious tbr list.  When I look back to 2014 I see that there is a Julian Barnes, a John Le Carré, a Sue Gee, an Andrew Taylor, just to name a few, languishing at the very bottom of what is a disgracefully long catalogue of titles.

There is no practical answer to this, I know.  I can never hope to read all the books I want to and these titles haven’t really sunk to the bottom of the list because I have been putting them off, although I suspect they are the ones that I was least anxious to read.  I notice there is no Peter Robinson, no Kate Atkinson, no Elizabeth Strout on the list.  There will always be some books that I will, abandoning all others, read as soon as they come through the door.  However, while there may be no practical, or even impractical answer to the problem, perhaps you have found a better way of dealing with your back catalogue of must reads.  If so, I would be really pleased to hear about it.

DNF

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As always happens at the end of any Summer School last Friday we were reluctant to part and go our separate ways. Consequently, we sat chatting about all things bookish over the inevitable pot of tea for far too long, given that we were meeting in someone’s home and she must really have wanted her front room back. One of the subjects to which the conversion turned was the old chestnut of books that we have never been able to finish. Of course, the usual suspects raised their heads, War and Peace, The Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses and the like.  I have never been tempted to even start to read either Ulysses or Proust so I’m not certain whether that counts towards not having finished them or not.  However, I have read War and Peace – one winter many years ago when I had a long wait between buses on my way to work and needed something to read while I was standing at the bus stop.  It kept me going through the worst of the weather, which sometimes seemed to be trying its level best to mimic the terrifying snow storms round Moscow.

My contribution to the catalogue of DNFs raised many an eyebrow.  I have to admit that I haven’t ever managed to get to the end of Wuthering Heights.  The Brontes are far too melodramatic for me and I certainly have never been able to understand their taste in men.  I can’t see the attraction in Rochester so there is no way that Heathcliff is ever going to appeal to me.  Give me Darcy or Knightley any day of the week.  (Actually, my current literary passion is Leon Farrell from Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s but that is, quite literally, another story.)

So, I have bared my soul and opened myself to the ridicule of the reading public; now it is your turn.  What are you going to admit to never having finished? Are you going to add to those who have failed over the usual suspects or are you, like me, going to horrify large sections of your audience with your unexpected (unacceptable) admissions.  I’m not certain some of us in the Summer School Group will ever speak to the person who admitted to giving up on The Lord of the Rings again.

Why Would You Read The Last Page First?

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280Some years ago I used to belong to a local library book group.  We didn’t all read the same book but just met every month to talk about what books we had been reading and to pass on recommendations to those we thought might enjoy them. Inevitably, we all had very different tastes and, it transpired, very different reading habits, but we rubbed along and forgave each other what you might call our literary eccentricities. However, there was one member of the group whose approach towards a new book I could simply never understand. She would always turn to the last few pages and read those first. She said that she simply couldn’t read a book unless she knew in advance how it was going to end.   Now, I have written an entire PhD thesis on the final cause in narrative, arguing that the dénouement of a story dictates everything that goes before, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still want to actually read a story in the order that the writer has chosen to present it and have the pleasure of anticipating (rightly or wrongly) what is to come.  Reading the last pages first seemed to me to be a bizarre idea until, that is, yesterday, when I found myself doing exactly that.

I had just picked up the latest novel by a writer I have been reading for decades. It is part of one of a number of series this author has established and while waiting for publication I had re-read its immediate predecessor. That re-reading had reminded me that the writer, never one for the faint-hearted, has, over the last two or three books, moved the truly shocking events from the climax of the story to the conclusion. Just when you thought the tale was completely wound up a last minute (last page) bombshell would explode, not only in the reader’s face, but usually in that of the main characters as well.  This is something that I think you can get away with once, twice if you are a very good writer, but more than that and it begins to look like a badly played out ploy to bring readers back for the next episode. In the case of this particular series the bombshell is almost always the result of a terrible error of judgment on the part of one particular character and destroys any sense of returning equilibrium the reader might have been anticipating.  Now, I’m sure that the writer would argue that the character concerned is behaving in a psychologically consistent way; my counter argument would be that nobody with her/his particular psychological flaws would still be walking the streets, let alone be holding down an extremely responsible job. In other words what has happened is that I no longer trust the writer to offer me a true picture of the world. And so, as I sat down to begin this latest book I found myself thinking, “has s/he done it again?” And, because I couldn’t face another final pages’ disappointment I read the last chapter first.

The book will go back to the library unread.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I want all books to end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – I am no Bilbo Baggins. During the summer I read the final novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Assassin’s Fate.  Now there is a novel that didn’t end the way I wanted it to  if ever there was one.  I read the last forty or so pages through streaming tears. But, while it may not have been the ending I wanted, it was the right ending; it was a true ending and in fact far more of a validation of the characters and the world they inhabit than anything I had been looking for. Hobb’s conclusion didn’t destroy my belief in her fictional world, it vitally enhanced it.

So, when Hobbs next puts pen to paper I will give no thought whatsoever to turning to the last page first because I trust her to create a fictional world that will respect its own truth. The other author, I’m afraid, will join a small list of writers that I have enjoyed but who I no longer read.  The paradox is that fiction only works when we can believe in its internal truth.

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ October – November 2017

1106623932_58e6ad3de8October turned out to be a month complicated by illness. I started it laid low by the after effects of just three antibiotic tablets and finished it in a similar state as the result of a feverish cold.  Normally when I’m ill I eschew anything new and instead return to old favourites, usually series books, where I can spend time with old friends who will appreciate my predicament and not demand anything too taxing of me.  At the beginning of the month, too ill even to read, I took advantage of the fact that I had the audio version of The Lord of the Rings downloaded onto my iPad and turned that on to play through what I knew was going to be a long and difficult night. I reasoned that if I did manage to sleep at any point it wouldn’t matter because I know the books so well I would just be able to pick up wherever in the story I resurfaced. And, that’s precisely what happened, although predictably what sleep I did get coincided neatly with my favourite parts of the tale. The epilogue to this story is that two days later I discovered Audible had awarded me my Nightowl Badge.  How they know at what time of the day I am listening, given that the book had been downloaded not streamed, I have no idea, but I have to say that I am inordinately proud to be acknowledged a Nightowl.

At the other end of the month I did, in fact, read something new in the midst of my cold, or at least a new episode of an old favourite.  The arrival of the sniffles coincided with the delivery of my copy of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage and there are some books which simply can’t be put off. It was the perfect read for the situation, especially as it is nowhere near as intellectually demanding as His Dark Materials. I shall probably return to it over the Christmas period to be sure that I’m not underselling it, but I really don’t think so.  I enjoyed it very much, but I hope the other two volumes give me a bit more to chew on.

In between I had two re-reads for books groups, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.  As I said in my post about the Grant novel, the group was split.  Two thirds of us had very much enjoyed it, while the others had severe reservations. Not so the Barry.  Everyone of us had been knocked sideways by it.  As one of our most critical members said, she had been waiting and waiting for him to let the voice slip just once, not believing that anything could be so perfect.  She waited in vain.  Once more, the Booker judges left us dumbfounded.

I’ve also read a number of crime novels, some of which I have reviewed here and some not.  These comprise: Louise Penny’s Glass Houses, Quintin Jardine’s State Secrets, Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury and Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain. Plus, in preparation for the 1968 project, I’ve re-read two of the marvellous children’s novels published that year, Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.

IMG_0245Looking forward to November, both my book group selections will again be re-reads, this time Helen Dunmore’s spy novel, Exposure and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.  The first is my choice and I will almost certainly write after the meeting about how the discussion went and why I chose this particular book. The second was a last minute change of heart on the part of the person leading the group this month. We were supposed to be reading Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which would have been new to me, but the person who had selected it suddenly got cold feet about the bad language it apparently contains and so I have, as I say, another re-read.

I also have Frances Brody’s latest Kate Shackleton novel, Death Among the Stars, waiting for me, as well as Laura Wilson’s latest standalone mystery, The Other Woman. I’m not a great fan of standalone mysteries, but I make an exception for Wilson, who is an excellent writer and this has come very well recommended. In addition I’ve picked up the first novel by crime writer Angela Marsons, Silent Scream. I don’t know how I’ll get on with this. It is set almost within walking distance of where I live and the last local crime fiction I tried got so much wrong about the locale that halfway through I tossed the book away in disgust. Still, nothing ventured and all that.  Then I want to read at least one book for the Years Of My Life project. I’ve managed to get hold of Blyton’s Rockingdown Mystery, which will probably wile away a rainy afternoon at some point and I’d like to also get round to The Third Man.  I’m putting off choosing between Laski and Mitford until December. If there isn’t much new around over Christmas, I might even treat myself to both of them. But that’s for next month.

Time Off

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of Re-Reading (For Me)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Time To Read

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500There was an article in the paper on Tuesday about a new venture in the French city of Grenoble.  Apparently, they have installed a number of automatic dispensers which schpeel out free printed short stories for frustrated citizens waiting for their turn to encounter various forms of bureaucracy.  After they have taken a number for whichever queue they have joined said citizens can then push another button to receive a short story on a scrolled piece of paper that is not dissimilar to a till receipt. It seems that this has gone down a storm, with satisfied readers quoted as saying that they are transported out of the waiting room and into a ‘happy moment’ with new and interesting characters. Apparently, the stories take between one and three minutes to read.  All I can say is that bureaucratic queues must be a darned sight shorter in Grenoble than they are in England.

This did, however, raise yet again that perennial question of just how do you manage to find the time to read.  Part of me may be quite envious of those short French queues, but I have to admit that having the freedom to read uninterrupted in waiting rooms not only makes waiting far less stressful, but also, paradoxically, means that sometimes our English queues move too fast. All readers know the joy of the half a dozen snatched moments, but they are never enough and nine times out of ten we get to the end of a day and wonder just how that book we are reading got sidelined yet again.

In theory this should be absolutely no problem at all for me.  I am retired and I have no immediate family to make calls on my time, and indeed, when I first gave up work I did seem to be able to do all the reading and associated blogging that I wanted to.  But, I had to give up work on health grounds and for the first six months I did very little other than read and force myself out for a daily walk.  Now I’m back up and running (or at least ambling) again and out and about in the community it doesn’t seem so easy to carve out the hours that I want.

Lot of people talk as if they have found the answer but when you dig into what they have to suggest there is very often little substance behind their remarks. There was a discussion on the radio about ten days ago after a query as to how to choose what to read given the amount of fiction that is published these days.  The ‘expert’ didn’t really answer that question (which was a shame, because that is another perennial problem) but diverted off into the issue of time, however, all she actually came out with was that you had to prioritise. Well, yes, I can see that.  But how do I actually set about doing it?

I do all the things I’m supposed to.  I never go anywhere without a book, or at least (given back problems) without an ereader.  I watch very little television and apart from blogging spend almost no time at all on social media.  I would be loath to give up blogging because half the pleasure of a good book is ‘talking’ about it with other people.  I can’t do the ‘go to bed half an hour later and get up half an hour earlier’ thing because if I don’t get my seven hours I wouldn’t be any good for the reading time I do get.

So, what are your tricks for extending out the reading time?  I know you must have some because many bloggers read and review far more than I do.  What am I missing and how can I improve?

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?