July blogging update!

I can’t believe it’s July already.  I also can’t believe how much time has gone by since my last blog post so I thought I’d better check in and let everyone know I’m still here!  Honestly, I have so many great books either on the go or imminently pending, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day right now to get all my reading done, let alone writing.  For a start, it’s Wimbledon – and as a bit of a tennis lover, even my beloved books are going to have to take a bit of a back seat for the next fortnight.  Work is mental (no change there then!) but there’s never a dull moment and the days pass in a whirlwind of activity until someone gently reminds me I should be going home.  And since I’ve turned into a bit of a slug recently I’ve resolved to get back to doing at least a little bit of yoga every day.  Which doesn’t always happen.  BUT I’m determined to share some of my July reads with you soon.  I’m just about to start “Wives and Daughters” as part of my challenge to get back into the classics, and I’ve just started what promises to be an amazing book, “These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper.  Should I admit that I’m STILL going with “4 3 2 1”?  It’s a bit embarrassing since I distinctly remember posting about that very book in my April reading round-up and am still barely a quarter of the way through, but I have no bookish secrets from you all, my lovely followers!  I’m sure we’ve all been there though, with those books that for some unfathomable reason you enjoy at the point of reading yet don’t feel any burning desire to come back to once you’ve put them down.  Paul Auster’s latest is one of those, but I’m sufficiently invested to keep going with it, albeit at a slower pace than normal.  I’m also excited to be taking part in the Quercus Summer Reads competition and as part of that I’ll be reading and blogging about “The Little Theatre by the Sea” by Rosanna Ley, so look out for that review coming your way soon.

I’ll do my best to get something online before too long – in the meantime enjoy the sunshine!

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A generous helping of guilt for a Tuesday evening…

A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop.  It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time.  I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts.  There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.

I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago.  A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going.  The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it.  Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore?  And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic?  If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!

I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era.  In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens.  I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one.  From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me.  And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things?  What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.

I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid.  As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again.  Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week.  I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!

Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before.  I’ll let you know how progress goes!  I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is.  See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!

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Bookshop spot: seaside shopping

As I sit here in my flat, typing away with rain pouring down the window, it’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago I was in blazing sunshine a short drive away down the coast in the gorgeous seaside town of Hastings.  The British summer may have ended before it’s begun, but I’ve brought a little bit of cheer back home with me in the shape of a beautiful second-hand book I found while rummaging in the old town quarter earlier today.

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Many old hardbacks have quite plain fabric covers, so this one jumped out at me straight away.  I love the 1920s and 30s illustration style and to find it adorning the jacket of a classic like this was a bonus indeed!  Inside the front cover there’s a book plate that tells me a little of the book’s history (which I always love finding); it was presented to a Newcastle schoolgirl called Ada Simpson in 1932 for “attendance, progress and conduct” – amazing to think that more than 80 years ago, someone was holding this very book in their hands with probably as much delight as I do today.  And it gets even better – there are beautiful colour plates throughout the book, each with a brief caption in the form of a quote from the novel.

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I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; how this has happened I’m not quite sure!  Both my mum and sister are huge fans, yet somehow, when I was embarking on my literary educating by raiding the family bookshelves in my adolescence she was an author I must have passed over for some reason.  I haven’t read any classics in a while as I’ve been going through more of a contemporary fiction phase, but now I’m the proud owner of this lovely edition this surely has to be next on my reading list.

I’d love to hear about any gems you’ve uncovered while book-shopping, so do share your finds and pics!

Spotted! My best bookshop finds…

I love walking into a bookshop and stumbling across something I didn’t expect to see.  Yes, you can always browse online from the comfort of your sofa, but bookshops have a knack of throwing up gems that you’d never discover any other way.  I’ve been out and about hunting down my next reads and thought I’d share some of them with you.  Tonight, we have this beauty – a stunningly presented collection of previously unpublished stories by voice of the jazz age, F Scott Fitzgerald.

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Interestingly, a number of these stories weren’t accepted for publication because they strayed too far from the style that editors had come to expect from Fitzgerald, so it will be fascinating to see how they differ from the stories we know so well today.  There are also stories that were intended to be published in magazines and even some that were written in the hope they would be turned into films, although none of them ever were.  The cover is pure 20s elegance, the perfect packaging for a collection such as this, and I couldn’t resist.

More of my best bookshop spots will be popping up on the blog soon so keep an eye out!

My Top 5 Anti-Valentine’s novels

Unless a miracle happens in the next few days I’m going to be single on Valentine’s Day.  Which means 24 hours of avoiding the smug Facebook posts and nauseating couples selfies on Instagram and wallowing in chocolate truffles, raspberry gin and a resolutely unromantic novel.  So if like me you’re dreading the big day, or if you simply aren’t a fan of hearts and flowers, here’s my Valentine’s gift to you: my top five anti-valentine reads.

  1. “Madame Bovary” by Gustav Flaubert – frustration, fantasy, passion, disappointment and finally despair; the miserable cycle of unrealistic romantic ideals is played out with grim clarity in this tragic tale. Emma Bovary’s painful and protracted suicide is one of the most hideous chapters in fiction, dispelling once and for all the Romeo and Juliet-style trope of the swift and somehow romantic lover’s death.
  2. 2. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy – from one tragic heroine to another, only this time it’s a well-timed jump in front of a train that brings the suffering to an end. The stigma and social isolation that follow Anna’s separation from her husband are a telling illustration of how men and women are judged so differently when it comes to infidelity – and you have to ask yourself, in all matters relating to love, sex and sensuality, how much has really changed since Tolstoy’s time?
  3. “Thérèse Desqueyroux” by François Mauriac – if your life hasn’t turned out quite according to plan then why not set about murdering the person getting in your way? Like our first two heroines, Thérèse knows all too well the misery of a loveless marriage, but rather than turning the emotional screws on herself she decides instead to poison her husband. I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to wholeheartedly support her in her crusade, but if there’s a novel that will make you relieved to be single, it’s this one.
  4. “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant – let’s up the positivity quotient with a female character who, despite being no stranger to heartbreak and the romantic restrictions imposed by a patriarchal society, manages to maintain a dogged resolve to turn every situation to her advantage if she possibly can. In spite of the tragedy and violent death, this novel of love and passion in Renaissance Italy is strangely uplifting. I didn’t agree with the ending that the author chose to give her heroine, but up until that point this is the perfect novel for any girl trying to make her way in the world.
  5. “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” by Robert Hough – if you’re sick of smiling benevolently through gritted teeth as yet another friend parades down the aisle or produces a perfect baby, then seek sanctuary in this wonderful novel about the ultimate defier of social convention, circus performer Mabel Stark. Hers was an eccentric and colourful life, featuring a succession of slightly bizarre relationships with men (and one very bizarre one with a tiger), during which she remained absolutely true to herself and her passions, unorthodox though many of them were. If I raise my Valentine’s glass of gin to anyone this year, it will be Mabel.

See you back on the blog when all the horror of February 14th is over!

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Books about Books: “The Literary Detective”

You know you’re a true bibliophile when your love affair with books extends beyond merely reading them to embrace the whole world that’s built around them.  I love a cracking novel, but I’m also endlessly fascinated by our literary history, the place of the book in our cultural landscape, book art and design…. you name it – if it’s in any way related to reading, I’m going to want to discover more about it.  So it’s for people like me that I’m embarking on a new series of articles for my blog, simply entitled “Books about Books”.  Over the coming months I’ll be highlighting some recommended reads for everyone who delights in bookish facts, trivia and history; first up is “The Literary Detective” by John Sutherland.

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The author originally wrote a series of books in which he attempted to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of classic novels, and this is a compilation of all of them in one volume.  What I love is that fact that the enigmas he explores are ones you may well have missed on reading the novels in question, and it’s only when he draws attention to them that you suddenly start to think about their significance to the story.  More often than not, there’s a real element of fun to his contemplations (“Why is the Monster Yellow” in Frankenstein and “How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge’s turkey” in A Christmas Carol) yet he always manages to blend wit and entertainment with genuinely enlightening vignettes of literary criticism.  In his essay on Dracula entitled “Why isn’t everyone a Vampire” he does some deft and amusing (but undeniably correct) mathematical calculations to prove that, by Bram Stoker’s own theory of vampirism, as outlined by the voice of exposition, Van Helsing, the entire world population should have been turned into a vampire within about 15 years of the first person becoming infected.  Once we’ve laughed at the gaping plot hole and the author’s unsatisfactory attempts to get round it, though, Sutherland leads us on to a really interesting parallel between the Dracula story and the Victorian struggle to understand disease and how epidemics flourish and then die out.  Entertainment, but with a fascinating splash of literary and social theory thrown in.

The author delves into the detail of all the great classic novelists, from Austen to Hardy, Woolf to Dickens; but even if you haven’t read all the books in question it doesn’t matter, as Sutherland is careful to make his essays accessible to everyone.  If you’re at all interested in classic literature, there are hours of fun to be had here, and because the essays are all fairly short you can dip in for ten minutes here and there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post – there are definitely more books for book lovers out there that I’d love to share with you, so do come back to Girl, Reading soon.