Top Ten Tuesday: Tyrants, despots and dictators

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. 

I had already half decided not to involve myself in the next few Top Ten Tuesdays, at least until I had a bit more time to spare. However, as soon as I realised that this was a freebie week, the idea for a post on tyrannical regimes in literature immediately leapt into my head fully formed. It would have been wasteful to ignore it or to put it off until another week when the subject would be less relevant (although I guess it’ll remain relevant for at least the next four years). But still, it seemed like an apt week.

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, in which a revolutionary extremist Christian movement seizes control of power and strips women of their rights and freedoms, with horrifying consequences. I’ve read this a few times now and it never fails to scare me.

2. 1984 by George Orwell. An obvious choice perhaps but I don’t think this list would be complete without reference to 1984. Winston Smith exists in a nightmarish world where the state controls the truth and every move is watched by Big Brother; there’s no privacy, no freedom, no love.

3. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I think the dystopian world in V for Vendetta is disturbing because it’s just about recognisable. This is a police-state London in the 1990s, post civil-war and run by the fascist Norsefire party.

4. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The White Witch’s tyranny over Narnia has lasted a hundred years and caused a deep, deep winter to settle over the land.

5. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare. Weird choice maybe but I quite like this play, although it is rather harrowing. Coriolanus’ tyranny over Rome eventually collapses because he is completely unable to compromise.

6. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. A slightly more light hearted entry on the list here although it’s still fairly dark. The action here takes place in Chromatica, where the social hierarchy is determined by ability to see colour.Woe betide you if you’re a Grey caught fraternising with a Violet…

7. Animal Farm by George Orwell. The farmyard setting is used here to comment on the high ideals of the Russian Revolution which had quickly gone astray and been replaced with Stalin’s reign of terror.

8. Harry Potter and the … by J.K. Rowling. In the Deathly Hallows Voldemort seizes power and begins his own renewed terrifying reign over the magical world, but you could argue that Delores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic had been verging on the despotic for some time anyway.

9. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Another alternative history but in this one the people from the African continent have used centuries of technological advantage to subjugate the Europeans. Now the Crosses (Whites) are at the mercy of the more powerful Noughts (Blacks).

10. The Wave by Todd Strasser. A clever classroom experiment – and an attempt to show what life was really like in Nazi Germany – goes horribly wrong when a new movement sweeps through the school.

I realise that this week would also have been a good week for a TTT list on protests in literature but sadly that proved a little harder to write. I’ll bear it in mind for a future week though – suggestions always welcome!

Katherine (1954) by Anya Seton

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Finally finishing this book at the weekend was a truly wonderful, joyous thing that can be traced back to a very mundane circumstance several weeks ago: I had to work between Christmas and New Year and while my colleagues were at home enjoying happy family fun times I enjoyed three beautifully lonely lunch hours in the staff room. A solid hour of uninterrupted reading time is pretty unheard of for me right now so the chance to do it three days in a row was a tremendous luxury. Like Christmas all over again in fact. It came at just the right time and stopped me giving up on Katherine just as I was feeling at my most fed up and demoralised about my failure to make progress. Hurray for Christmas miracles.

Katherine is a bit of a departure from my usual reading material. I enjoy historical fiction but usually avoid romance and I had a vague idea that this was a sort of epic love story complete with fair maidens, chivalry and jousting. I quickly realised that I wasn’t quite right about that (although there is jousting, be warned). Even if Katherine didn’t appear at number 95 on the BBC’s Big Read I might have been keen to read it anyway since it features a bevy of my favourite Plantagenets and the Plantagenets are always, always interesting, mainly because of all the (figurative) backstabbing and (literal) murdering they did during their four centuries in charge. The subject of this novel is Katherine Swynford, the daughter of a poor knight who, at the age of fifteen, joined the royal court of Edward III. The novel takes you from Katherine’s childish infatuation with the King’s son John of Gaunt through to their torrid love affair and the decades she spent as his not-very-secret mistress. Katherine wasn’t to know, of course, that in spite of quite publicly being branded a harlot by her contemporaries, she and John would eventually establish a bloodline that can be traced right down through the centuries to the modern royals.

I love the depth of the detail in this novel; that, and the fact that Seton grants the same attention to the minor things – the real names of Katherine’s attendants for example, or the history of Sir Hugh Swynford’s Lincolnshire estates – as she does to the pivotal moments in the romance. It’s like there’s nothing so insignificant that she doesn’t think it worth writing down. I know some people really hate all that useless detail in a novel because it slows down the narrative but, for me at least, it makes the historical setting really believable and kind of immersive.  Each time you close the book it’s a supreme effort to re-acclimatise to the real world, you almost have to shake the fourteenth century out of your brain and force yourself to remember where you are. I quite like it, but I’m weird like that. It helps, of course, that the Plantagenets are such good story fodder. Seton handles them well so that there’s just the right amount of domestic and political treachery for it to be entertaining without becoming completely absurd.

I wasn’t massively in love with some of the characterisation and at times I have to say that I found Katherine utterly, utterly exasperating. After spending much of the book demurely complying with the Duke’s every whim it made quite a nice change when she occasionally stopped all that half-hearted moral wrangling and made a decision for herself for once, even if it did jeopardise her own happiness. You wonder whether the Duke would have loved her quite so much if she hadn’t been so content to sit around in a castle for years, quietly hoping for the occasional visit, bearing bonny children and mysteriously never losing her looks or figure. I know that this sort of forced inactivity was a reality for a lot of medieval women but still, I needed something more here to make me really warm to Katherine or to root for her love affair. Reading it at a distance of sixty years it comes across as a little dated and even very slightly cheesy.

Immediately after finishing Katherine I began Vile Bodies and loved it from the start. I’m about half way through now and having a rollicking fun time; isn’t it funny how you can switch so easily from one response to another?

My reading year in numbers

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At the end of last year I wrote this short post looking statistically at the books I’d read in the previous twelve months. I’m not sure where the idea came from – I might have pinched it, I can’t remember; if I did, I’m sorry – but it was quite revealing and I enjoyed doing it. It was the first time I’d looked back and thought carefully about what I’d been reading, what this said about my reading habits, and what I wanted to do in the coming year. In lieu of a typical end-of-year review I’ve done a similar thing this time. Here is my reading year in numbers…

In 2016 I completed 26 novels and 3 short stories.

I listened to 1 audiobook (Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927 – unblogged).

I failed to finish 1 book.

The oldest novel was Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864 but I also read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart which was published in 1843.

The newest book I read was Shylock Is My Name, published in 2016.

Roughly 15% of the books I read were published before 1900, 19% were published in the first half of the twentieth century, 27% in the second half and 38% in the last sixteen years.

17 books were by male authors. 9 were written by women.

They were written by authors from 14 different countries.

Fiction accounted for nearly 93 % of the books I read.

The longest book was War and Peace (1,317 pages). The shortest was The Uncommon Reader (121 pages).

I have read 2 more books from the BBC Big Read this year (War and Peace and Perfume).

My most popular blog post of the year – in terms of the most views – was this one on tips for reading War and Peace. At last count it had been viewed 91 times.

 

So what does this tell me? Firstly, that although I read fewer books than last year, it really wasn’t as bad as I was imagining. There were a few occasions in the second half of 2016 when I felt like I was wasting time; days and weeks were passing by and I wasn’t finding time to do any reading at all. It was annoying. But, you know what? Given the various upheavals the year has thrown my way, 26 isn’t really all that bad. It could be worse.

I’m also really happy to see that my efforts to read books by a more diverse range of authors have been partially successful. British authors still dominated (9 books in total) but the remaining novels were written by authors from the US, Germany, Italy, Russia, France, Uruguay, South Korea, Albania, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, Chile and Zimbabwe. Looking back, I’m not sure I’d have discovered many of these works at all if I hadn’t been making an effort to push myself and my last Top Ten Tuesday post should stand as proof of how much I’ve enjoyed doing this. I should also thank the ladies at Hard Book Habit for launching the Around the World challenge and giving me the push I needed.

It’s also worth saying, however, that this shift away from my quaint little English Victorian/Edwardian comfort zone has had the unexpected effect of making my reading material less diverse in other ways. In 2016 I read less non-fiction, fewer female authors and fewer classics than in previous years. Maybe this says something about the kinds of works that get translated into English – is modern fiction more likely to get translated than classic fiction? – or maybe it’s just one of those weird unavoidable things. Maybe I just wanted to read fiction this year because times were tough and I subconsciously thought that non-fiction might be too heavy going. Maybe there are just more male authors than female ones.  Who knows.

All in all, though, I think I can look back on the past twelve months and be reasonably happy; I read some wonderful books, discovered some new authors, and have plenty more to look forward to in 2017.

Happy 2017 all 🙂

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite books of 2016

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week we’re looking at our favourite books of the year (not counting rereads like Our Mutual Friend). 

In true Top of the Pops style, here’s my top ten countdown in reverse order:

10. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. I can’t say whether it was due to the contentious subject matter or the lively, chatty way in which it was written but I really couldn’t put this down. It consumed my life for three days.

9. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. If you’d told me last year that only one Brit was going to make it into my favourite ten I wouldn’t have put money on it being Hardy. I’m as surprised as you are.

8. On Tangled Paths by Theodor Fontane. Lovely, short and sweet. Much like this review.

7. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. This was the ideal book for restoring my reading mojo when I was finding my job and general lack of spare time really demoralising. I think it came along at the perfect moment for me.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. The Neapolitan books are tumultuous and kind of exhausting but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like them. I’ve been dead pleased with them so far.

5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s not the most engrossing or the most accessible of novels – in fact I’m pretty sure I’d have hated it if I’d found it on my school English syllabus – but there’s something about the starkness of the writing that I really like.

4. A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov. Hilarious, gruesome and unnerving; I loved it.

3. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Let’s hear it for the Ferrante double whammy! It’s not often I’m keen to pursue a series of books past the first couple but I’m really looking forward to discovering how this story plays out.

2. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi writes with real passion about the sanctuary that books can offer in dark and oppressive times. This stayed with me long after I’d turned the last page.

1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Yup. We all saw this one coming. It was far and away the best thing I read last year and for ages afterwards nothing I read felt quite as good. It’s almost a shame I peaked so early in the year.

I’ve not yet formulated too many plans for next year but I’ll try to come up with some sort of [very] loose idea of what I’d like to focus on in 2017. I expect this will lead to some sort of New Year’s resolution style post in the near future but we’ll see how it goes.

Happy new year all 🙂

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d like to find under the Christmas tree

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. Each week a new theme is posted and today we’re looking at books we’d like to receive for Christmas.

The hardest part of this week’s list is narrowing it down to just ten. Am I a bit greedy?!

1.       The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I’ve had my eye on this for ages, mainly because I’ve seen a ton of good reviews on the blogs. Fingers crossed.

2.       Anything at all by Ismail Kadare. I don’t mind which book. Any will do.

3.       Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. This year has been an Austen free zone and it’d be nice to cross another of the major novels off the list.

4.       Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. If only this didn’t look so darn huge, I’m sure I’d have read it already. Maybe in 2017.

5.       The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It’s been hard to ignore all the buzz about this novel. I’m intrigued.

6.       The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I’ve not yet read any Australasian novels as part of the Around the World in 80 Books challenge so this might be a nice way of doing it.

7.      The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley. I heard a radio documentary about Christine Granville last week and now I’m a bit obsessed.

8. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I try to read at least one Russian novel a year and this, I think, is the leading candidate for 2017. I’ve not tackled any Turgenev before.

9. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary. Again, it’s the reviews that did it for me with this one.

10. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I read The House of Mirth last year and it was great. I’d like to read another.

That’s it for another week, and probably my last post before Christmas. Have a merry one 🙂

A visit to the Shelley grave

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I’m waaaay behind with reading Anya Seton’s Katherine so there’s no review to post just yet. Instead I thought I’d put up some photos of a grave we visited a week or two ago in sunny Bournemouth. This was my first time in Bournemouth (it’s lovely, by the way; you should go) and before we left I made a point of dragging poor P around the town centre in search of St Peter’s Church. It was fairly easy to find – just opposite a grotty looking Wetherspoons called ‘The Mary Shelley’ – and we didn’t have to spend too much time wandering amongst the graves because the church had provided a handy exhibition board with a plan to help us out. I expect they probably get quite a few Shelley pilgrims visiting.

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This small looking vault is actually the last resting place not just of Mary Shelley, but also her son and his wife and Shelley’s parents, the journalist William Godwin and the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women.

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Apparently Mary Shelley only visited Bournemouth a handful of times. In the late 1840s her son began work on a new home at nearby Boscombe, hoping the sea air would help his ailing mother, but she died in 1851 before it could be finished. In the last years of her life she had expressed a wish to be buried alongside her parents so they were duly removed from a cemetery in London and placed alongside her here. It’s also said that the heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom Mary had eloped as a teenager, is buried here. He drowned in Italy in 1822 but his heart was salvaged from the funeral pyre and brought home to England.

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After leaving Bournemouth we wandered into the New Forest for a bit and came across another literary grave. But I’ll save my photos of that for next time I’m short of reviews!

Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

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There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.

Top Ten Tuesday: new-to-me authors in 2016

Of the 26 books I’ve managed to finish so far this year, more than half have been by authors I’ve not read before. That’s quite nice. I had a bit of trouble finding time to work on this post as thoroughly as I’d have liked so here are just five that stand out:  

1.      Ismail Kadare. The Fall of the Stone City was a bewildering read and I’m not sure I did it justice but while I failed miserably to get to grips with the plot, I loved the beautifully lyrical writing enough to want to read more. 

2.      Elena Ferrante. An obvious choice but I read the first two books in the Neapolitan series (reviews here and here) earlier this year and got shamelessly hooked on both. 

3.      Theodor Fontane. Not that I know the names of any other works by Theodor Fontane but I liked the gentleness of On Tangled Paths.  

4.      Azar Nafisi. I love love loved Reading Lolita in Tehran. Books about the love of books are always brilliant, especially when they take old favourites and look at them from a completely new point of view. 

5.      Isabel Allende. Ok. I know I didn’t like Daughter of Fortune  all that much but I’ve heard so many good things about her books that I think I probably need to give her another try. I’m truly desperate to love her. 

That’s it for this week, folks!

The Squire’s Story (1855) by Elizabeth Gaskell

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The problem with short stories, I sometimes find, is that they don’t always have enough time to lodge themselves in your memory. I read this particular tale, number 5 in my old ghost stories collection, on my lunch break two weeks ago and then I reread the whole thing again just now so that I could write this review. In the intervening period the plot and the characters had vanished right out of my head and I was left with just a vague memory of a house and a bad man and a bit of hunting.

Now that I’ve refreshed my memory I can tell you that this is the tale of Mr Robinson Higgins who moves to a small town where nobody has heard of him and takes up residence in the grandest house he can find. He ingratiates himself with the locals and even marries the daughter of a local squire.  In spite of his occasionally reckless behaviour he’s admired by everyone – except wise old spinster Miss Pratt, of course – but the source of his wealth, and the real reasons behind his occasional absences from the town, remain a mystery.

This is my first time reading anything by Elizabeth Gaskell (I know, right?) and I was a little disappointed to find that this particular story hasn’t aged too well. I like the way that Gaskell plays on that age old suspicion of outsiders by showing how a quiet, rural community welcome a stranger into their midst without realising what a monster he really is. It’s a sinister tale. On the other hand, I wonder whether the final reveal just isn’t as shocking today as it would have been a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it’s because few of us have quite such a close relationship with our neighbours these days or because murders are old hat; we see real and fictional accounts of them all the time on TV and in the press. Either way, it’s a little sad that Gaskell’s story has lost something of its power to alarm now.

On a slightly more pedantic note, while I appreciate that this is a gothic horror story and may have been fairly creepy to her contemporaries, it doesn’t actually feature a ghost (as far as I noticed, anyway).

 

The Woodlanders (1889) by Thomas Hardy

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I’m back from a short break with lots of apologies for the unexplained absence. In the two weeks since I was last online I’ve had a lovely holiday in snowy Eastern Europe whilst what can only be described as a political shitstorm went down in the US. Yikes. However, I’m not going to dwell on all that too much because I finally got round to reading The Woodlanders after a year of procrastinating and this is of much more relevance to the here and now. Hurray. I’m now ready with tea, custard donuts and a few spare minutes in which to get some thoughts down.

“There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child.”

The Woodlanders is the story of Grace Melbury, whose adoring father has devoted a large portion of his small income to educating his daughter well above her station. It’s not done out of greediness or pride exactly but out of a sort of sacrificial love for his beloved only child. Until now Melbury has always intended that Grace will marry woodman Giles Winterbourne, the son of his late neighbour, but his daughter’s growing refinement convinces him that she’d be happier marrying someone richer and more successful. And so it happens: the lovelorn Giles is ditched, rather reluctantly it must be said, and Grace is encouraged to fall for the worldlier, more exotic, newcomer Edred Fitzpiers. It all goes horribly awry in the end of course. You wouldn’t expect anything else.

Poor old Grace. No one ever really asks her what she would like to do and I wonder whether, if they had, it might have saved everyone a lot of bother in the end. I suppose they’d probably just have ignored her wishes though. It isn’t her fault, of course, that she’s been educated to such a level that she no longer fits in with her old friends, who regard her as too clever for them, or with the upper classes who think she’s too low down in the social pecking order. Her relationship with her well-meaning father is quite touching though and her story really brings home how very much at the mercy of their husbands and fathers women used to be. For this precise reason, however, I wasn’t overly happy with the ending of the novel – I think I’d have preferred something a bit more radical from Grace even if it would have been quite out of character. Still, after all the heartbreak that had gone before, it was nice to see Grace make her own decisions about something; even if I didn’t approve of her choices they probably went down a bit better with the audience of the time.

I read the Penguin Classics Edition because, well, I love Penguin Classics. This one, however, let me down. It wasn’t the fault of the novel itself but the footnotes. Normally I’m a bit obsessive about footnotes; I don’t always like interrupting the flow of the story to read them straight away but I’ll wait a while and check several at once when I get to a good place for stopping. On this occasion though I found myself becoming increasingly reluctant to check because they kept cross referencing events yet to happen in the plot, and not just small events but major plot twists. I was less than a hundred pages into the story and I already knew that so and so were going to get married, this person would have an affair, and these people would be dead before the final page. Brilliant. Thanks, Penguin.