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.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to read this autumn

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the folks at the Broke and Bookish. This week the theme is all about the top books we’d like to read this coming autumn.

Before writing this post I looked back at my TBR list from the start of the summer and realised, with dismay, that I have only read three of the books that I listed. Three! Well, three plus one short story. Good grief.

I said at the time that I don’t really plan my reading ahead because I’m too fickle, too easily distracted. I believe I have just proved my point. So here’s the latest attempt but with the usual disclaimer: this list will have very little bearing on what I will actually end up reading in the coming months.

1). The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. I’m looking forward to reading something a little more grown up from Rowling. I know absolutely nothing about it – I didn’t even read the blurb before buying it – so whatever happens hopefully it’ll be a nice surprise!

2). The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. This was on the TBR list I made in June and I’m still desperate to read it. I think I have to be in the right mood for Hardy and lately I just haven’t been.  Sometimes I just want to read a book where I know all the main characters will survive to the end, is that too much to ask?

3). The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I loved this book when I read it back in 2005 but until last week I hadn’t even thought about it in ages. It wasn’t until I saw the advert for the latest BBC adaptation that it all came flooding back to me. I’ve recorded the show but I think this needs a reread first.

4). The Warden by Anthony Trollope. After months of searching I finally found a second hand copy of this amongst some new donations at the charity shop. About bloody time. Who knew that the residents of this little town were so keen to hold onto their Trollopes?

5). The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’m so ashamed of not having read this yet. It’s been sitting unread on my shelf for at least ten years. Possibly more.

6). War and peace by Leo Tolstoy. Another example of the BBC shaping my reading habits. I was only saying a few weeks ago that I want to have another go at this and then I heard that there’s a big adaptation planned for next year…. but maybe I’ll leave it a little longer. I’ve had enough big books recently.

7). The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. P’s dad lent me this nearly a year ago and has been far too polite to ask for it back. I need to get on this soon.

8). Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories by Rex Collings (ed). I don’t plan on reading these all in one go but I think I might try to do one a month or so. Now the nights are closing in they’re pretty perfect for some ghost stories by the fire I think.

9). Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This has been lurking at the top of my TBR pile for ages and there have been several times when I’ve reached for it…. and then changed my mind. Soon, Lady Audley, soon.

10). Something, anything at all, written by Sophie Hannah. I’m going to an author talk in October and it occurs to me that besides some poetry and The Monogram Murders, I haven’t actually read much by Sophie Hannah. I know I’ll get more from the talk if I’m reasonably well prepared before hand.

Voila! Do other people stick to their TBR lists? Or is it just that I’m a bit of a flake?

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my TBR list for summer 2015

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is the top ten books I’d like to read this summer.

Ooh this is a tricky one. Generally I don’t tend to plan too far ahead – I’m too easily tempted by new books that come along – so all this list really tells you is that these are the books I’m thinking about today. Ask me tomorrow and I’m sure you’ll get completely different answers!

1. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. How many TBR lists does this appear on I wonder? Tons, I’m sure. I gave in and pre-ordered mine at W H Smiths last week.

2. The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. This was a birthday present from our chickens (presumably with a little financial assistance from P). I’m not too sure what to expect but I saw some of the TV shows and enjoyed them. Paddy Considine is great.

3. Oscar And Lucinda by Peter Carey. This has been on my list for years. I finally bought a copy a couple of weeks ago…. and immediately realised I’d gone off the idea. Isn’t that annoying? Maybe in a month or two I’ll have worked up some more enthusiasm for it.

4. The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene. Reading this a few years ago sparked an obsessive Graham Greene binge that lasted a whole summer until I got fed up (a bit like when I binge watched A Game Of Thrones and then got so bored of it I never made it onto the third series – there’s a pattern here). Anyhoo, I remember this being awesome and I’d like to read it again.

5. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. I was a fool for being scared of Hardy. The Woodlanders is my mum’s favourite so it’s made on to this list on her recommendation.

6. Amo, Amas, Amat by Harry Mount. Latin would be a handy language to know where I work but I’ve always been too lazy to make a concerted effort to learn. I bought this at the Roman Army Museum, thinking it’d be a fun introduction.

7. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I told my brother’s girlfriend that I’m always a little disappointed by Neil Gaiman books; I never enjoy them as much as I expect to. They very kindly bought me this for my birthday to change my mind.

8. 1215: The Year Of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. This was another birthday present and I’m looking forward to reading it hugely. Given that it’s the 800th anniversary this week I might bump it up the list and start it a bit sooner.

9. Any Anthony Trollope novel. I’ve always suspected that I’d like Anthony Trollope but I’ve never got round to reading any of his books. But where do I start?

10. Some of the stories in The World Of Jeeves by PG Wodehouse. I like Wodehouse. He’s always reliably entertaining.

So there you go! Will I manage to read all of them? Almost certainly not. But it’s been quite nice to think about all these possibilities stretching out before me.

I had the day off yesterday and was looking forward to spending some of it reading but the weather was so nice that I chose to do some gardening and go for lunch with my mum instead. I’m making really slow progress through Howards End so I probably should have taken the opportunity while it was there.

Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) by Thomas Hardy

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

I was able to squeeze in a few solid hours of reading time yesterday and finally turned the last page at about 11pm. I could have finished earlier – on the train home from work even – but I decided to delay the last few chapters so I could finish them in bed. This is one of life’s little pleasures I think: finishing the book, turning out the light, thinking it over while you fall asleep…. I think Far From The Madding Crowd is one book that deserves a bit of mulling over.

Far From The Madding CrowdEverything centres around the beautiful (of course) Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle’s farm in rural Wessex and determines to run the estate herself without the hindrance of a husband or farm bailiff. In doing so she’s brought into contact with the three men who end up having a huge impact on the course of her life and the novel. There’s Gabriel Oak, her loyal shepherd; her neighbour, the reserved and repressed Mr. Boldwood; and Sergeant Troy, the rakish soldier who struts in mid-way through and undermines all the romantic groundwork put in by the other male characters. Bathsheba makes some poor choices, inadvertently hurts her admirers and gets hurt herself in turn.

Despite my initial reservations I ended up admiring Bathsheba a great deal. If she wasn’t such a strong, persuasive character I wouldn’t have cared enough, I wouldn’t have felt so drawn into her troubles. Slowly the reader understands that despite all of her faults – her extreme vanity, impulsiveness and pride – she’s really not all that bad. She has courage, conviction, self-belief and there’s even a little kindness under all that haughtiness. I do love a strong, independent female character (especially in a classic Victorian novel) and Bathsheba Everdene is exactly that. She isn’t a victim of circumstance; it’s her behaviour and her choices that drive the plot forward.

As I’ve mentioned, the plot takes a while to get going and I found the slowness infuriating at first. I see now, though, that this is really one of the best things about the novel. In fact, the slowness is the whole point. It’s satisfying to watch as Bathsheba eventually realises that her only friend, the only one worth having, has been there all along. It’s a relationship that evolves slowly, through the hardship and destruction caused by past affairs.

“They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.”

I think I might be a little bit in love with this book.

On Bathsheba Everdene

My progress through Far From The Madding Crowd has been pretty sluggish. I get easily distracted, that’s my problem. First it was the lovely weather and then the General Election came along… I wasted hours and hours (days even) checking the BBC website repeatedly for updates. It was time I could have spent reading. It’s a shame really, particularly when the updates only made me more bitter.

But anyway, I’m over it now. Time to move on.

The first part of FFTMC has been pretty leisurely and unhurried. Now that I’m just inching into the last half things are starting to get moving. Gone are the days when the only excitement offered was in the form of some dead sheep and a fire in a hay stack. I don’t miss those days.

I’m starting to feel a bit more sympathetic towards Bathsheba now too. I couldn’t bring myself to like her at first, she was too haughty, and I couldn’t really see why all the male characters found her so utterly fascinating. I think it’s probably because she’s so honest about herself. In spite of her vanity she doesn’t pretend to be anything more than she is. She’s just a bit foolish sometimes.

I certainly don’t want her to get hurt although I suspect that that’s on the horizon (I think all the other characters suspect it too). It’s hard not to feel more kindly towards her when she’s about to make a terrible mistake.

A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True (2010) by Brigid Pasulka

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While I slowly plod through Far From The Madding Crowd, I thought I’d write up some of my notes on other books I’ve read this year; partly so there’s not too much radio silence on the blog and also to prove that I do read books that are less than a hundred years old. Sometimes I read books that are fairly new. Sometimes I like them.

 “Golden hands. It is said that all Poles have them and that this is how you know your place in life, by the ease of your hands, that whether you were born to make cakes or butcher animals, cuddle children or paint pictures, drive nails or play jazz, your hands know it before you do. Long before birth the movements are choreographed into the tendons as they’re formed.”

I read A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True back in February, just after we’d booked our trip to Krakow. I’ve been to Krakow a couple of times – it’s lovely – and I like to be relatively informed about the places I visit so it seemed like a nice idea this time to track down some fiction set in the city. I thought it would make a change from all the guidebooks we’d been scouring over. I checked Trip Fiction and a couple of other places but didn’t really find much I fancied or that was readily available in English. Krakow is a UNESCO City Of Literature so my failure to find anything by an actual Krakovian author to read before we went is pretty shameful. In the end I got a copy of ALLTAAET very cheaply on Amazon. I’m a sucker for whimsical cover designs.

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ALLTAAET switches between two connected stories. The first begins with a young shepherd, known locally as the Pigeon, who glimpses Anielica, the most beautiful girl in Half Village, and is instantly smitten:

“And since courting a beautiful girl by using a full range of body parts has only recently become acceptable, in the Spring of 1939 the Pigeon made the solemn decision to court Anielica through his hands. Specifically, he vowed to turn her parents’ modest hut into the envy of the twenty seven other inhabitants of Half Village, into a dwelling that would elicit hosannas-in-the-highest every time they passed.”

His devotion and hard work win her over but their lives are quickly thrown into turmoil by the Nazi invasion, the war and then by the communist takeover. They spend a brief period of time in Krakow, looking for work, but Anielica eventually returns to Half Village alone. The second story is set 50 years later, shortly after the collapse of communism. Their granddaughter Beata has left Half Village (where her grandparents’ romance is legendary) and arrived in Krakow hoping to find a better life for herself. Instead she (like Krakow itself) is caught between old and new, overwhelmed by too much choice and grappling to find her place in the world.

It was a quick, light read, which is sometimes just what you want. And really I can’t think of anything much that I disliked about it. It might have been nice to know a little bit about the generation in between Anielica and her granddaughter, maybe. I also wondered whether some of the more distressing aspects of the war were glossed over very quickly. But these are both quite small quibbles.

In comparison there were many more things that I liked: Pigeon, the fairy-tale style romance, the jokey asides and the Polish fatalism… The alternating storylines could have been distracting in the wrong hands but I didn’t find them particularly jarring so they were obviously skilfully handled. It helped that Beata was very likeable and I looked forward to reading her chapters particularly. She spends much of the novel flailing about trying to work out what to do with herself and it could have been irritating after a while. But really I found her quite relatable.

As a book specifically about Krakow it was really useful. Pasulka obviously knows the city really well and her love for it shines through. It was quite a nice way to recall the atmosphere of the place, something you can’t really glean from guidebooks and Trip Advisor reviews. I came away with lots of ideas for bars, cafes and tourist spots to visit, so many I started to plot them on our map. We never made it to half of them but at least we have lots of ideas if we go again.

Choices

I had a day or two off while I recovered from my A Tale Of Two Cities hangover. Sometimes it just feels a bit wrong to begin another book when you’re still recovering from the last one… or maybe that’s just me. I’m always a bit worried that I won’t give the new book a fair chance if I’m still hankering after the one I just finished.

In the meantime I pondered over what to read next. There were a few contenders:

· Howards End by E. M. Forster

· The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

· Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

· The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

· The Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford

· The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth

Some of these are re-reads, some of these have been lent to me, and some are very much dependent on the book finally, one day, please, becoming available at my local library (I’m looking at you, Gaiman).

In the end the decision was very quick to make: I was late for work yesterday morning and grabbed the first To-Be-Read book I could find before I legged it out the door. My shelves are alphabetised by author and H is at about eye level on the shelf so it was perhaps inevitable that it would be Hardy. We have a bit of a difficult history, Hardy and I, so I’m a bit concerned that I won’t finish it. We’ll see how it goes.  Wish me luck!