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A Victorian End of Year Review (of sorts)

ImageVaultHandler_aspxAnd so, the end of 2013 has passed… and so has my two-year themed reading challenge. It’s been such fun choosing a monthly theme then piling up the appropriate books with fevered anticipation. And then posting gratuitous pictures of my personal library. The total of books read thematically has been less than impressive, as seen on my Good Reads list.

Organising my reading thematically has given me focus, made me take books off my shelves (even if they’re just been piled up and reshelved after a couple of months), and challenged me to discover new authors and genres.

However, it has sometimes been restrictive and the blogging element of the experiment has fallen by the wayside a little. I haven’t reflected on the themes deeply enough, perhaps because the reading in the end hasn’t been so focused. I’m still distracted by all the books I haven’t read, and all the books which keep piling up in our house.

So October’s theme, which melded into November and (oops!) into December, was Victoriana. I loved the anticipation of this and found some delicious looking books on my shelves (see previous post). The few novels I managed to read were successfully atmospheric and (perhaps) overly dramatic. Some were set in brothels with suitable emphasis on sexual proclivities (The Crimson Petal and the White in particular; not too gratuitous but with an engaging narrative style. And stonking good plot). There was swirling fog, gorgeous dresses, and grisly murders (at times). They all seemed to be hefty tomes with complicated plots and lots of sex. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance of our mis-conception that the Victorians repressed everything. (see Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians to redress the balance)

Reading contemporary novels set in the Victorian era has been an interesting contrast to the style and content of the ‘real’ Victorian novels I’ve already read.  Some of the Victoriana was almost a self-conscious parody, seeking to recapture the thrills of a Victorian ‘sensationalist novel’ but failing. I’d rather read Wilkie Collins or Mary Braddon, thanks.

I would recommend anyone to try a year, or a few months, reading within a certain theme; whether a particular author, setting, genre, subject matter. I have discovered some gems and authors I wouldn’t have otherwise have tried. Get out of your comfort zone and look in a different part of your local bookshop or library.

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And so as I look ahead into 2014, I’m resolving to ‘watch less, read more.’ I have many books piled up waiting to be read and am looking forward to a year’s ‘free reading’, returning to my old habits of reading different books, whatever takes my fancy…
…. but with the twist that I cannot buy any more books for myself for the whole year.

Now, that’s an idea for a year’s worth of blog posts…

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On Victoriana

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Inspired by my son’s school topic this half term, I am choosing to read a selection of Victorian inspired modern fiction. I’ve read a good selection of the ‘real’ thing although there are always gaps to fill. However, I have chosen to read modern writers’ interpretations of Victorian literature. Even within this selection I am aware there is a potential range of style: some may almost be pastiches, others add alternative voices to the established canon, some look at a familiar subject from an unfamiliar angle. Most of them would probably be viewed as scandalous if published during the reign of ‘ Victoriana’!

I’m forward to fog and furs,  crinoline, corsets and the Crimea; a selection of mystery, romance, murder, history and great costume descriptions.

Of course, the stack of books shown is another gratuitous shot of books from my shelves; there’s enough material there to last about six months. I hope I can make some progress.

Enough of this: time to read!

(not shown: collected works of Sarah Waters and Scarlett Thomas, and whatever I can find loaded on my Kindle)

 
 

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On Iris Murdoch (in Anticipation)

A collection of Iris Murdoch

A collection of Iris Murdoch

A new month, the start of a new school year, another gratuitous picture of my library.

After the Summer off (more of that later) I am returning to my self-imposed reading theme, hoping to get the literary grey cells going with a good dose of Iris Murdoch.

As you can see, I have a(n almost) complete collection of her novels (copies of Flight From The Enchanter, The Bell and Iris are mysteriously missing; particularly odd as I know I’ve read them. That will bother me all night…).

But I don’t think I really ‘get’ Murdoch. She’s a novelist who writes about ideas, about people who talk about philosophy, stringing events together to make a point, rather than a great novelist with a well-honed style.

Or at least that’s my recollection of Murdoch’s work.

I am prepared to be challenged.

But where should I start?

 

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Hardy: a Heart-Tearing Man

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‘Emotional convulsions seemed to have become the commonplaces of her history…’ far From the Madding Crowd

May has ended, spring might have finally sprung.
I tried to get myself into the seasonal mood, by focussing on the fecund and pastoral work of Thomas Hardy, but – as ever – I was distracted by ‘real’ life such as family birthdays, half-term holidays and (minimal) gardening.

I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had an idea of what to expect. I knew I had to be emotionally strong to put myself through the affecting wringer that is a Hardy novel. I had already read Tess of the d’Urbervilles (and studied it for A level), Jude the Obscure, Two on a Tower, The Well-Beloved, The Trumpet Major, Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Casterbridge; emotional roller-coasters all.  I remember reading Tess when I was about fourteen (far too young to appreciate much more than the bare bones of the story) and having no idea what happened between Tess and Alec until I studied it again at eighteen. The pool of blood seeping through the guest house ceiling made a chilling impact on its first reading though. And I never ate strawberries in the same way again.

This month I started with a selection of Hardy’s short stories, a mixture of Wessex Tales and The Distracted Preacher. Fellow Townsmen was as hard-hitting as expected: conflict, tragedy, reflection on the pace of change, architectural details – all the usual tropes and themes were present and correct but slightly more palatable when in a bite-sized dose.

9780140431261The main focus of my reading has been Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy’s first major successful novel, published in 1875. I was drawn into the story immediately; I found it not so much a ‘love triangle’, more a ‘love pyramid’ with the scathingly beautiful Bathsheba Everdeane as the central focus. My sympathies ranged between characters, mainly towards the sympathetic, straightforward, hardworking shepherd Gabriel Oak, but also towards William Boldwood, Sergeant Frank Troy (but only slightly), Fanny Robin, and even Bathsheba herself.
(I confess, as I write this on 1st June, my Penguin Classics’ copy is beside me with a large leather bookmark in page 370, begging to be finished. I am desperate to find out what happens in the end; hosting in-laws, entertaining children for half-term and writing this blog have prevented me from keeping to my deadline precisely)

[the next day: finished, with a sigh of relief as it’s a happy ending. Highly recommended, now, where’s the DVD adaptation to relive it…?]

Desperate Remedies was my Kindle reading; I’ve not progressed very far, although I know already that the path will not be smooth for Cytherea and Edward.

9780141017419I only dipped into Claire Tomalin’s biography Thomas Hardy: A Time Torn Man; what I read of his early life was beautifully presented and I will certainly return to his story, even if I don’t continue reading it into June. The artistic tension between his training and work as an architect and his vocation as a poet and later novelist (mainly for the money; he never felt as proud of his novels as his poems) must have strained him at his metaphorical seams. He was also torn between his first wife and his second, reinventing his love for his first wife after her death; almost loving her more in death than in life, recreating her in his poems, more lovely and beautiful than in reality.
His life (1840-1928)  immense and intense chronological tension and changes during a particularly significant period in England’s history, from the beginning of the Victorian era with all the technological development and change, the extension of the British Empire, the explosion of innovation in art and design (architecture included), societal developments in addition to The Great War of 1914-18.

I will continue to dip into Hardy’s poems, novels and short stories for many, many years to come. I hadn’t intended to read much more than one major novel and a selection of poems this month and so I’ve achieved my goal; I knew the pile of books in the cherry blossom tree at the start of the month Thomas_hardywas overly ambitious.
Hardy’s an indisputably great writer (albeit a little verbose at times) and takes the reader on an intense journey of feeling and character development whichever novel you read. His romantic realism is breathtakingly beautiful at times. Some of his characters will always remain with me (Tess, Bathsheba and ‘Little Father Time’s’ heartbreaking note: ‘Done because we are too menny’). I cannot decide whether he loves or hates his heroines in particular; he treats them so badly. Perhaps there’s an element of masochism in his writing which he was never able to put into practice in real life.

As a postscript, I am (indirectly) named after one of Hardy’s poems. Although both my parents are fans of Hardy’s novels and poems (my mum’s a former English teacher and my dad’s an architect), I only discovered his poem ‘Amabel’ about ten years ago while wasting time on a search engine. As expected, it’s a poem of thwarted love and longing; Amabel’s a ruthless woman.
Look her up.

 

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On Anticipation

My ambitious pile of reading for March's Nordic Noir theme.

My ambitious pile of reading for March’s Nordic Noir theme.

Too many books?!
This pile represents my bookshelf gleanings for March’s ‘Nordic Noir’ theme. Yes, I know the month’s almost finished, but I wanted to record my ambitious hopes for the month’s reading before the moment had passed. My Kindle’s poised on the top as I have almost ten other appropriate books on it.

A few of these titles are from our local library; some recommended by an enthusiastic librarian, others just leapt off the shelves at me. Those that I own are likely to be joining the ever-increasing pile of books awaiting their new home in Barter Books; just need to read them first.

I haven’t read much of this pile, and am aware that we’re in the last week of the month, but I am enjoying having about five of them currently on the go. Once I log off, I’m off to my reading group to discuss ‘The 100-Year-Old Man Who Jumped Out of the Window and Disappeared’; not quite Nordic Noir but set in the right geographical area with a crime driving the plot. Admittedly (and rather shamefully) I’m only about half way through it and haven’t warmed to the central centenarian ‘hero’. I shall persevere with this ‘Forrest Gump’ style novel. It’s quirky, unusual and has been getting rave reviews. Let’s see how tonight’s discussion progresses.

More musings on my foray into ‘Nordic Noir’ at the end of the month; as long as I can find some more time to get stuck into this pile…

 

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Viva la Revolution!

To ring in the new year, I though I’d go back more than 200 years for January’s theme: the French Revolution. Partly inspired by the film everyone’s talking about, Les Miserables, I thought I’d tackle a few novels set in an era I know little about. It shows how little I knew about both the story and history that I thought it was set in the Revolution, when it’s actually about a century later… To be honest, what I know about the French Revolution could fit onto a small, lacy handkerchief: Marie Antoinette, ‘la Guillotine’, Bastille, cake or bread, lots of flag waving. So, when I opened Hilary Mantel’s first novel, A Place of Greater Safety, I was all at sea, without any meaningful reference points. Her mighty tome explores the lives of three major players in the Revolution: Maximillien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulions, Georges Danton. (no, I’d not heard of them before now either)

I had to restrain myself from reading much else; I needed to focus my time and energies on getting through all 878 pages. Interestingly, I ended up reading both a paper copy from the library and a paid-for version on my Kindle. By the end, I’d probably read it twice as I skipped through both copies to find where I left off and thus realised how little I remembered from day by day or hour by hour. Mantel writes in an interesting, unusual style; at times conversational and gripping, other times confusing and overwhelming. There is a very long list of characters (helpfully listed at the front; difficult to flick to it on the Kindle) and Mantel doesn’t always refer to her characters by name when conversing.

It has certainly whetted my appetite for the magisterial Wolf Hall, at least I am familiar with the Tudor court and main events of the period; I am less likely to read this one alongside Wikipedia as I did with A Place of Greater Safety.

Once half way through, I couldn’t give up; all those hours spent reading would have been to naught. So I continued, persevered, often feeling as though I had an assignment deadline looming. So why did I continue? Simply, I don’t like giving up on a challenge; I felt as though I should continue to the bitter end. And I now have a soft spot for Robespierre, Camille and Desmoulins. And am looking forward to reading Wolf Hall. My appetite is now whetted. I know I won’t be reading this one alongside Wikipedia as I hope that A level history has stood me in good stead and I’ll at least be familiar with the main characters and events.

As A Place of Greater Safety was just so long (over 870 pages), it’s meant I haven’t read much else. Can I ask that this novel counts as about 4 novels towards this year’s novel count?

On the subject of other novels, I shall continue to read Les Mis (on the go on my Kindle) but at 1000 pages, it’s likely to be on the go for a while. I might also find the chance to see the film everyone’s raving about.

I struggled to find other novels about the Revolution; anyone know any more?

I’ve ordered a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy from our library. It is full of ‘derring do’ by those rascally ‘Eeeenglish’ aristocrats smuggling French aristos from the embrace of ‘Madame Guillotine’. I am now quickly rattling through this, enjoying another perspective on the Revolution.

And I still haven’t got round to reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; another month perhaps…

As a segueway between the Revolution to February’s Regency Romance theme, I have started Cynthia Harrold-Eagle’s The Tangled Thread(the 10th installment in The Moorland Dynasty, not that I’ve read any of the earlier stories); It’s almost as though I’ve planned this…

Here’s hoping that February’s Regency Romance theme will allow me to rattle through novels at a much faster rate. Georgette Heyer, Mary Balough, and timely enough, Jane Austen; heaving busoms, strict conventions and even tighter trousers, arch observations, here I come…

 

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