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The books we should have read…

I do like lists. From the Huffington Post, here’s a list of books that apparently people claim to have read but haven’t.

The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – I read the Knight’s Tale at school, and it’s on book mountain, but I haven’t read any more tales.

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville – nope. Maybe I should add it to the list.

Ulysses by James Joyce – nope. Probably won’t either.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – nope. The excessive sentimentality of the films put me off.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – no. It’s on book mountain so I probably will.

Moby Dick by Hermann Melville – why yes. Lots of lists of whales.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – yes, I have. And I understood some of it.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – um no, never heard of it.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco – no. Saw the movie.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust – no. But I really feel I should.

Don Quixote by Cervantes – no. It’s on book mountain.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – no. I might though; I really like the title.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi – no, but it is on book mountain, so one day I will.

Two for me then. What about you?

Thoughts on reading: The Turn of the Screw

Last year, there was a television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and thus there followed much discussion of its horror and psychological twists. Well, what more reason do you need to read a book?

I struggled with the language. This was a surprise. I read the odd classic and although it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing, usually I find that it is perfectly clear once you get used to it. Perhaps it’s because the classics I tend to read are by English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and James is American. I wondered if the reason I was finding it hard to get to grips with was because it was an American classic and the language was subtly different to English literature of the same era.

What I found really frustrating was that I didn’t know what was going on. Things weren’t spelt out. There were coded references to socially unacceptable behaviour, which to me could have meant all sorts of horrors. Some people find that leaving things to the imagination makes it more scary. Not me. I can imagine a lot of things and not being able to choose which is the thing being described (because there aren’t enough clues to nail it down to one thing) is frustrating. It certainly underlines my belief that detail is what convinces in fiction. For me, the horror was reduced by the vagueness and ambiguity, not increased.

My non-fiction book was Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. It was excellent, full of good advice, good examples and lots of things to try out in my work-in-progress.

Thoughts on reading: The Bluest Eye

I discovered I could edit on the train so I wasn’t reading for a while. I’ve got as far as I can with editing the current work-in-progress; it now needs more writing and I can’t do that on the train quite so well. That does mean I’m reading again which is no bad thing as active reading leads to better writing.

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel. I wanted to read it as it deals with the impact of cultural conceptions on beauty on people who don’t, and can’t ever, be beautiful on those narrow terms. And Toni Morrison is an important writer whose work I haven’t before read.

In the introduction to the edition of The Bluest Eye that I had, Morrison talked about what she had tried to achieve and how she felt that she’d failed. She’d tried to tell the story of a person who is smashed by rejection, who had no self from which to speak because she had internalised the dismissal and hate. To do this, she used a variety of voices to relate a number of incidents that build up to a picture of the child that results. Morrison doesn’t feel she succeeded. As I don’t know what she was trying to do, I can’t say, but it seems to me that what she wrote was exceptional.

What I particularly took from this novel was the way in which Morrison manages to convey accent and rhythm of speaking with word choice and sentence structure. She doesn’t rely on dialect spellings to give her characters authentic voices, meaning the reader doesn’t need to work out how things are supposed to sound. She uses words that were contemporary to 1950’s Black America and structures her sentences in ways that mimic the rhythm of this type of speech. She allows the world of the novel to be built up quickly without distracting the reader from the story.

The second learning point for me was around structure. The novel has four sections which correspond to the seasons and in each section a part of the story is told by a number of different characters. It isn’t chronological for the seasons aren’t necessarily in the same year. Each event adds another layer to the story of the life of a child until you see just how brutalised she is, and just how unintentional most of it was.

In her introduction, Morrison says that few people were moved by The Bluest Eye – I certainly was.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Back to the classics. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is probably one of the most famous stories of english literature. The story follows the eponymous heroine as she is coming of age. She is seduced and ruined by one man, rejected by another when she discloses her shame and then further manipulated by the first until she kills him.

This was a great book, a classic that firmly deserves to be there. For a novel of it’s age, the authorial voice is muted and much more of the characters is to the fore. Characterisation is subtle and effective. The hard struggle of life of someone in Tess’ position is made clear without labouring the point.

Naturally, the pivotal event in the first third of the book largely happens off-scene and leads to the question – is it rape? It is never described as such but I can’t help feeling that that’s because rape is defined as ‘violent stranger-danger’ and what happens to Tess is more like acquaintance rape. According to Wikipedia, as the event happens off-stage it leaves the reader to decide whether she was raped or seduced. To me this sounds like ‘either she was violently raped or she willingly (enthusiastically) participated’. My reading of the story was that she was pressurised and manipulated; her class, poverty and social conditioning were used against her to wear her down – plus, she’s asleep when Alec d’Urberville starts on her. Throughout the book Tess is painfully conscious of how she is being manipulated but unable to find a way through it.

Later in the book, when Tess has been abandoned by Angel Clare, Alec d’Urberville’s behaviour becomes abusive. He targets her and holds her responsible for his actions. Her very existence is the thing that he claims compels him to act and Hardy neatly describes a consummate piece of victim-blaming.

This is a fantastic book with many levels and written with great intelligence and empathy. Highly recommended!

Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh is a delight. It follows the activities of the ‘it’ crowd in the late nineteen-twenties. They are the sons and daughters of the rich and famous. It’s funny and in places it’s tragic. In contrast to The Left Hand of Darkness, the writing was quite terse and restrained, but it was equally powerful. I liked it and will definitely read more Waugh.

Martin Chuzzlewit

I feel so virtuous. Like my mind has been on a marathon session at the brain gym!

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. I’m a bit ambiguous about Dickens. I had to read Great Expectations at school and I hated it. On the other hand, A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favourite books. But I have a sort of list of ‘books I should read’ which is traditional classics, fantasy & sf masterworks, key feminist and minority texts, and anything else that I come across that seems important.

It took about sixty pages to get into the rhythm of Martin Chuzzlewit and that was hard going. It’s been a while since I read anything where the average sentence has more than three clauses. Anyway, once I got into the swing of it, I loved it. It was funny and I found myself laughing and smiling a lot. I loved the snarky portrayal of the characters and the swipes at broader societal hypocrisy. It’s a huge read – even by comparison with today’s epic fantasy novels – and covers the doings of a family of nefarious characters, anyone of which could have had a book all to themselves. It’s not an easy read, but well worth it.

A Gun for Sale

I joined a book club at work. This month we’re reading Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt and A Gun for Sale. I read Travels with my Aunt ages ago and loved it. Graham Greene is one of my favourite authors.

A Gun for Sale was new to me and the first thing that struck me was how contemporary the writing felt. It is full of short, sharp sentences with a gritty, terse feel to it. The interior monologue occasionally sounds like telling, but otherwise it was amazing. There is a point in the middle when one of the main characters is killed and I found it incredibly shocking. It turns out later that she wasn’t actually killed and that is also a stunning reveal. I loved it.

I’ve also been reading Your Next Move by Micheal Watkins and Heart of Darfur by Lisa Blaker. The latter was very moving but I was disappointed that there was no attempt to explain what was going on.

I may be a while in posting my next ‘what I’ve been reading’ update as I’ve embarked on Martin Chuzzlewit and it’s 700 pages of tiny type. I may be some time.