Top Ten Tuesday: My Literary Dinner Party

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week we were encouraged to visit/revisit some old TTT themes from months and years past… 

Top Ten Literary Dinner Party Guests is not (as far as I know) an old TTT theme. It’s one that I’ve just made up but it sounds like the real deal. The idea came about because of one of those silly late night conversations about which famous people, dead or alive, you’d invite to dinner. Except, last time we had this conversation I had a complete meltdown over it because I realised that a) I had too many guests I wanted to invite and b) the men far outnumbered the women (because ‘history’ is mean like that). In an effort to address the balance someone was going to get bumped off the guest list to make way for Eleanor of Aquitaine and I had a horrible feeling that it would end up being Rick Mayall and that, my friends, would have been a bloody travesty. Wouldn’t Mayall be more fun at a party? But wasn’t a strong female presence needed to balance out Oliver Reed? I agonised over my guest list for so long that P eventually turned out the light and went to sleep.

This, then, is a revised list made up of only authors, poets and playwrights. No Rick Mayall. No Queen Eleanor (I know they both wrote books but let’s just not go there, ok?). Here goes:

1. Oscar Wilde. I bet Oscar gets a lot of imaginary invites to imaginary dinner parties. He’d keep everyone entertained with his witty, entertaining conversation but I wonder if it’d wear a bit thin after a while?  

2. Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is probably the coolest person I can imagine. I’d turn into the worst kind of grovelling fan if she came to my party.

3. Lord Byron. This could be the worst decision ever. Sure he’d be fun and I don’t particularly mind if the party descends into drunken debauchery under his influence since it’s an imaginary one and I won’t have to clean up afterwards…. But, what if he brings his bear? Or fires his pistols during the starters? Or tries to seduce Zadie? Byron’s a risk. But it might pay off.

4. Mikhail Bulgakov. Purely because I read A Country Doctor’s Notebook last week and I’d like some more of those stories please.

5. Mary Shelley. I’d like to hear all about her  elopement with Percy Shelley, those months in self-imposed exile on the continent, that evening creating horror stories with Byron and Polidori in Italy…. I imagine she’d have some brilliant (but possibly quite sad) stories.

6. Christopher Isherwood. Just because I love every book of his that I’ve read (which, admittedly, isn’t many) and I think they’re all beautiful. Plus, he was a very well travelled man so he’d have some great tales to tell.

7. George Eliot. I like reading about Eliot’s crazy life and her intense relationships with others and I’d happily spend a night hearing about it straight from the horses’s mouth. I bet she and Byron would get on pretty well.

8. Agatha Christie.Maybe Christie would use my party as inspiration for one of her stories, one in which an eclectic group of writers are mysteriously gathered together for no apparent reason and then they all start getting bumped off, one by one… hmm. No. Maybe not a good idea at all.

9. Terry Pratchett. Every good dinner party needs an opinionated, slightly mad (in a good way) guest.

10.  Zelda Fitzgerald. By all accounts, when Zelda was at her best she was intelligent, creative and high spirited; the perfect dinner guest. I’d try to invite her before the marriage though, when she was still Zelda Sayre, and had fewer cares in life.

There are some notable exceptions here: Austen (too prim), Dickens (he might bring everyone down by talking about social reform or something), Hemingway (Byron’s enough for one night)…. What do you think? Have I missed anyone vitally important?!

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A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

(published elsewhere as A Young Doctor’s Notebook).

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?

I think I do.

What is my life?

An absurdity.

Now that Our Mutual Friend is well and truly behind me, I fancied moving on to something a little shorter, a little less taxing on the brain, for my next read. P read this book last year, not long after the TV show finished in fact, and has been raving about it ever since.  It seemed pretty ideal; not too lengthy, relatively light hearted (in places) and set in Russia. And we all know how I feel about novels set in Russia.

Back in 1916, Bulgakov was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a medical degree from the University of Kiev. With frightening swiftness he was dispatched to his first practice, in an isolated spot in the heart of rural Russia, 35 miles from the nearest town and staffed with just two midwives and a feldsher. This book, written several years later, is a semi-fictionalised account of his two years in rural practice told in a series of short vignettes. In it, the inexperienced, overworked narrator must deal with emergency amputations, childbirth complications, syphilis epidemics and the wary distrust of the local peasant population. There’s no electricity, the roads are impassable except by cart, they’re frequently snowed in, and eventually there’s a revolution and a civil war raging in the background too.

“And there was I, all on my own, with a woman in agony on my hands and I was responsible for her. I had no idea, however, what I was supposed to do to help her because I had seen childbirth at close quarters only twice in my life in a hospital, and both occasions were completely normal. The fact that I was conducting an examination was of no value to me or to the woman; I understood absolutely nothing…”

The young Bulgakov seems to have viewed his time in the sticks as a necessary prison sentence, a step on the path towards finding a more respectable practice on his eventual return to the city. His stories are shocking and gruesome and horrifying to the modern reader but thankfully he never shies away from describing everything he sees in all its bloody gory. It makes for an engrossing and slightly unnerving read at times, particularly because he tells all his stories with a sort of dry, deadpan humour. This is especially noticeable when he recounts examples of his own panicked inexperience under all this responsibility. In one early scene he abandons a patient shortly before an operation so he can run back to his room and find a textbook with the necessary instructions for performing the procedure. In another he becomes completely enraged by the ignorance of a patient who refuses to accept that he’s suffering from a dangerous medical condition. These anecdotes are told so simply and matter-of-factly that as a reader you find yourself feeling quite glad that Bulgakov put himself through such hell since his experiences inspired such great tales.

The last two chapters of A Country Doctor’s Notebook shift away from Bulgakov and tell the stories of two other doctors of his acquaintance. The most gripping is the first of these – entitled ‘Morphine’ – and it’s the story of his successor at the hospital, a young man who sank into a crippling addiction shortly after taking up his first practice. It’s told in a series of diary extracts and, unlike other parts of this book, there’s not a lot of humour to be squeezed from his situation. However, it’s genuinely moving and provides an interesting shift away from the frantic chaos of the first half of the book.

All in all, I thought this was pretty perfect. It’s put me in half a mind to have another stab at Master and Margharita. Maybe in a few months’ time anyway. Probably not right now.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I didn’t finish

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish.

They say the path to heaven is paved with good intentions. My particular path, wherever it may lead, is paved with unfinished books. I’m a relentless giver upper. I’d like to think that I’m better than I used to be, that I’m much more inclined to persevere with a book that I’m not enjoying, but I’m not sure if that’s really true.  As proof all I can say is that I’ve not given up on a book this year. That’s pretty good, non?

The TTT theme this week is actually all about series  I didn’t finish but, for me, that’s just demoralising. I can’t think of ten series I did finish so I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number I gave up on. I decided that a list of unfinished standalone novels might be less alarming and would make me feel like less of a failure.

1. The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This got left on the backburner for nearly eleven years, which is quite shocking when you consider how much I enjoyed the little I read. It won’t be on the unfinished list for long as I’m currently giving it another try. [See here for the latest update].

2. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. If this was a competition To The Lighthouse would win hands down. I must have started this book, and cast it aside, at least five times. The first chapter is so familiar it’s like an old friend. If only I could get past it!

3. War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Since giving up on this I’ve listened to the radio play and read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I loved). They’ve convinced me that I didn’t give War And Peace a fair chance before and I need to go back and try again.

4. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I was so desperate to love this but couldn’t get beyond a third of the way through, both times I tried. It’s still on my shelf, waiting for that third (and hopefully final) attempt.

5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In all honesty, I probably won’t give this another shot. Maybe I’ll try the audio book instead. If I can stay awake long enough. Yawn. 

6. A Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James. Thanks to Mr James I now have a morbid fear of long, convoluted sentences that lead nowhere. They bring me out in a cold sweat. I’ve kept this book in the hope that one day I’ll conquer that fear.

7. The Master And Margherita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I still want to read this but it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. Sometimes if you fancy a light read, read something light. Don’t force yourself to read an epic piece of Soviet satire. Lesson learned.

8. The Magus by John Fowles. We just didn’t get on, The Magus and I. It was too vague, too clever, too postmodern…. and I got annoyed.

9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. My friend N always raves about how much he loves Murakami but I just don’t get it. I’ve tried. I really have.

10. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Am I really the only person who didn’t enjoy Cloud Atlas? Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

I am genuinely quite sad that I’ve never finished some of these; others, not so much.