Sunday, 5 April 2015

Why my 2014 literary challenge didn't work

Picking up this blog again has taken a long time. Partly out of shame. Partly out of apathy. Partly out of being incredibly busy. And partly because of simply not knowing where to begin again.

Needless to say, I failed my challenge to read 50 (very literary) books in one year miserably. There are several reasons why. One was, quite simply, laziness. My other "excuses" are perhaps more, well, excusable.

One reason was that in the 2013-2014 academic year I was very busy completing my teaching certificate. This meant a lot of extra administrative work outside my normal working hours - time that I perhaps would have spent reading. When I did read, it was very often books to do with educational theory as I tried to improve my own practice and prepare as best as possible for interviews, exams, placements, observations, and final assessments. Part of me thought that a) I shouldn't write about these books as they weren't part of my challenge, and that b) people would not be very interested in reading about these books anyway [after all, this is not an education blog. I have one of those too, which I've also neglected horrifically of late].

Being so busy has also inevitably meant less time for blogging. It's also made me extremely tired. I often read as a way of winding down before bed, and when you're tired (due to your work during the day and the time at which you're choosing to read), such weighty tomes appeal less. This meant I ended up reading a lot of fluff at night-time, which again, did not fit my challenge criteria. I also felt embarrassed to post about these as these were not very highbrow choices. Silly to feel embarrassed - it's my blog after all, dammit - particularly as probably nobody reads this thing anyway (the blog has always been more of a record for myself than for others in some respects).

Even once I qualified as a teacher in July, I didn't get any less busy in the second half of 2014. I took over a new course at school for 16-18-year-olds that was much more "lit-heavy" than the one I'd previously taught. This meant reading all of the texts that my colleague had put on the syllabus, as well as annotating them and planning lessons around them. Many of these books were not on my original challenge list either. Once I actually started teaching the course come September, I felt like a zombie for my entire first term as I tried to get to grips with the course, mentor two new members of staff, accept the fact that my school refused to send me on the requisite training for this new course, and somehow digest the sinking feeling that of all the set texts mentioned, my former colleague had only covered one with the second-year students (leaving me with three texts to do in two terms alongside two oral assessments, two written coursework tasks, and an entire language module. Yep.). This "sink-or-swim" feeling meant I had little time for other reading, and what I did read was stuff I could read on the fly - mainly newspapers and magazines, as well as the aforementioned pre-bedtime candyfloss for the brain.

Plus, having just qualified, you'd think this would make it quicker and easier to do my job. Nope. All of your lesson planning takes longer now that you know how to do it properly; furthermore, you see everything that's wrong with all your old lesson plans, and need to modify these. On top of this, changes within our school due to new management have not always been easy to cope with, and tend to leave you feeling more like pounding out your frustrations at the gym (a useful foil for the days when your despair makes you feel like gorging on chocolate) or blasting your eardrums at a gig rather than reaching for books by Ayn Rand or Thomas Pynchon.

I'm really hoping that come September 2015, all of this will flow more easily. The new management will be in their second year, and I'll be in my second year of the new course as well. I can already feel myself getting more confident with it, and feeling in the second year that you've been here before does definitely make a huge difference. 

So what strategies for going forward? I'll definitely be focusing on the list again, but also not feel so ashamed of just reading whatever else is around - and telling the blog about it - even if this is complete fluff or takes the form of a redirect to my education blog. I also intend to do this far more regularly. Whenever I do get round to blogging again, I'm always surprised by a) how little time it actually takes and b) how much I do enjoy wittering away into the blogosphere (even if nobody actually reads it after all). So it looks like I'll be taking up bandwidth for a while, hopefully. If you're out there, do leave a comment saying hi :)

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Sorrow of War (Bao Ninh)

--The blurb--
"Kien's job is to search the Jungle of Screaming Souls for corpses. He knows the area well - this was where, in the dry season of 1969, his battalion was obliterated by American napalm and helicopter gunfire. Kien was one of only ten survivors. This book is his attempt to understand the eleven years of his life he gave to a senseless war."

--The review--
The world of modern fiction is already replete with classic war-based literature: Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, Heart of Darkness, and Slaughterhouse-Five are just a few. One could argue that this leaves little to say; that the horrors of war have already been well-documented. However, a book that has been banned by the Communist Party, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and which leaves its author reluctant to publish further works is always going to be a source of intrigue, and luckily Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War does not just disappear behind this smokescreen of hyperbole, proving comparable in quality to the classics hitherto mentioned.

This high quality of work perhaps comes from the adage that it is best to write what you know; The Sorrow of War is based strongly on Ninh's own experiences in Vietnam, and thus the line between fiction and non-fiction begins to blur, with the novel raising compelling questions regarding dreams, hallucinations, and the imagined versus reality, as well as the reliability of protagonist Kien as narrator and the extent to which we can rely on our own memories. We also wonder, as readers, in what context Kien is retelling his story, and frequently question the chronology of the story itself, which doesn't make the plot unclear in any way, but rather opens the door to many future rereadings, so that readers can piece together the narrative in any number of new and different ways.

The piecemeal narrative is enhanced by the strength of the imagery and technique used by Ninh, which is elegant yet accessible throughout, while remaining simultaneously beautiful and ugly as he treats the sheer brutality of conflict with frankness and economy of style. In this way, he emphasises the worthlessness of human life, the ability of war to doom love, and the unforgiving aftermath of such bloodshed. The philosophical elements of this - such as whether ex-servicemen can ever be truly free post-war, and how far the characters in The Sorrow of War are acting according to their 'real' personalities - again make this work worth revisiting.

Even though the novel's title is so often reiterated throughout the novel as to seem contrived (Ninh has already shown us the sorrow of war; he does not need to tell us), the haunting themes, terrifying incidents, and compelling characters also contribute to this 1990 novel's status as a modern classic. Even the most briefly depicted personages are memorable for what the continued fighting has done to them, and the veiled references to the genre's forerunners (such as the emphasis on landscape, which is shared with Heart of Darkness) only emphasise The Sorrow of War's originality and flair, rather than detracting from it. It is therefore well deserving of its place in the literary canon, and one only hopes that Ninh will continue to publish what is surely a valuable extension of this highly significant Vietnamese view of one of the most tragic episodes in the country's history.  

Thursday, 7 August 2014

David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

--The blurb--
"The story of the trials and triumphs of David Copperfield, growing to maturity in the affairs of the world and the affairs of the heart - his success as an artist arising out his sufferings and out of the lessons he derives from life."

--The review--
Dickens is perhaps most famous for penetrating the darkest side of human nature, and even though David Copperfield seems almost Proustian in scope thanks to its time span, Dickens still manages to do this in quite some detail thanks to well-drawn characters, tribulations of plot, and the struggles faced by London's nineteenth-century poor.

The eponymous protagonist's burgeoning maturity, and yet omnipresent naïveté, throughout the narrative means that his growth from child to man seems to happen before our very eyes with realism and sincerity, despite there being little change in the formality of the language used. This flowery style and chronological order can make David Copperfield seem like a struggle initially, with the eccentricities of the characters not becoming endearing to us until later on, thanks to Dickens' enduring stratagem of repetition. 

As these characters fade into and out of the narrator's life at different stages, we know we're unlikely to hear the last of them, and we are right; rest assured that Dickens doesn't end this epic tome without tying up each of their stories neatly (maybe, some readers might say, a little too neatly). This technique also, however, has the merit of meaning that we have to read on to find out if our predictions regarding plot or personage will come true, and that we are eventually satisfied and rewarded for our perseverance.

And there is plenty to pursue: Dickens does not only tackle the dark side of human nature through themes such as deformity, despair, and deceit, but also gives the reader plenty in the way of levity, thanks to his approaches to the pleasures of love, friendship, and simply getting blind drunk with your first pay cheque. We therefore easily recognise aspects of our own lives in elements of David's, thus reflecting one of the many reasons why Dickens' works are considered classics, thanks to their ability to plumb the depths of human experience.

Dickens' powers of description also never cease to amaze, thanks to his superior lexicon and sheer technique. These gems are treasure that can be found in Dickens' pages by all those who care to hunt for them, and contribute significantly to making the act of reading his works a continual pleasure. While aspects of his literature may not appeal to all - such as the writer's well-documented interest in convoluted legal affairs - Dickens never ceases to keep us interested, thanks to characters that irritate, inspire, and intimidate; terrific showdowns; and a variety of well-depicted settings which can, to a degree, still be recognised today. 

The author described David Copperfield as the favourite of his own books, and it's easy to see why: while a little syrupy towards the end, it combines memorable characters with a dose of social reality, as well as situations and feelings that everyone can empathise with. By the end of the story, we feel as if we have grown along with David, and are sad to see him go; and yet we can also feel that he has grown into someone we can all be proud of and aspire to be, and so be confident that he will be fine on his own, even after we have closed the book. Making us believe that the characters created are so real to us - more than beautiful descriptions or a skilfully sculpted narrative - is perhaps the ultimate hallmark of a truly great writer, and it is this that maybe encourages people more than anything to continue seeking out Dickens' work.

other works by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Our Mutual Friend (1865)
Great Expectations (1861)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Little Dorrit (1857)
Hard Times (1854)
Bleak House (1853)
Dombey and Son (1848)
The Christmas Books (1848)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Oliver Twist (1839)
The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

--The blurb--
"At the peak of European Imperialism, steamboat captain Charles Marlow travels deep into the African Congo on his way to relieve the elusive Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader renowned for his fearsome reputation. On his journey into the unknown Marlow takes a terrifying trip into his own subconscious, overwhelmed by his menacing, perilous and horrifying surroundings."

--The review--
Joseph Conrad is perhaps thought of as being one of the United Kingdom's most quintessentially British authors, so it is arguably surprising to find that he was in fact a first-language Polish, and second-language English, speaker who was granted British nationality at the age of 29. This surprise arises from the unmistakable richness of his work, of which Heart of Darkness is an excellent example.

While the nautical settings of Conrad's works may seem on the niche side, this merely serves as a framework for the precise, eloquent and well-paced descriptions for which the author is famous. This high level of imagery also lends Heart of Darkness a degree of classicism that some of his more dated works, such as The Nigger of the Narcissus, lack. This is compounded by the other techniques used by Conrad to convey a sense of impending doom, such as motifs and pathetic fallacy, which leave little work to be done in terms of plot and character.

This is not to say that Conrad does not handle these elements of the novella with his characteristic tautness and panache. Not a word is wasted and despite the descriptions, the plot is still being moved forward with every turn of the boat and every movement of the sun. Character is also mainly built up through anticipation, as well as the descriptions and dialogue of others; this has the other equally important effect of building tension and suspense, leaving the reader wanting to meet the protagonist (Kurtz) while wanting simultaneously turns away. As Conrad reiterates throughout the text, "the horror, the horror" is all-pervasive and present not only in the characters and events but also in the atmosphere and landscape.

Naturally, some of this anticipation would be lost on subsequent readings; however, the quality of the description and overall craftsmanship of the writing make excellent reasons to reread, before one even considers the deep moral and existential questions raised by the storyline and characterisation. The richness of the imagery is what makes one reach for Conrad's volume, rather than watching Apocalypse Now (a well-executed adaptation to be recommended for the ways in which is capitalises on the author's precisely-woven plot and intriguing protagonists), and it is this that makes Heart of Darkness such a resounding introduction to one of the great figures of English literature.

Other works by Joseph Conrad
Almayer's Folly (1895)
An Outcast of the Islands (1896)
The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)
Lord Jim (1900)
The Inheritors (1901; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Typhoon (1902)
Romance (1903; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Nostromo (1904)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Under Western Eyes (1911)
Chance (1913)
Victory (1915)
The Shadow of Line (1917)
The Arrow of Gold (1919)
The Rescue (1920)
The Nature of a Crime (1923; with Ford Maddox Ford)
The Rover (1923)
Suspense (1925)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ooh apology is clearly in order.

It's pretty clear that this blog has been on extreme hiatus for the past 4 months or so. There have been reasons for that, although perhaps not very good ones.

I've been working towards my teaching certificate this year, which has led to me a) reading a lot of education books. Not something that was on this year's literary challenge list.

It's also led to b) a state of exhaustion, which doesn't leave much energy to tackle the heavyweights on my list.

This means that when I have been reading, it's mainly been c) the weekly papers, which are quick and easy to read bits of, and d) total junk that's basically marshmallows for the brain, like the typical 'Brits in the shit' stories of Little-Englanders packing up and moving to France...mainly so I can have a laugh at their stupidity without concentrating too hard myself.

I've therefore rather neglected this year's challenge, having not picked the best year to embark on it.

But now it's August, I've qualified as a teacher, and I'm finally beginning to slip into holiday mode. So I'll be catching up on the reviews of the books I did manage to read off my initial list, and making time to read the rest as 2014 marches on. There's still 150 days to go of the year, and I reckon I can make a pretty big dent in the rest of my list in that time. Thanks for reading this far, if there's anyone still out there :)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Pearl (John Steinbeck)

--The blurb--
"Kino is a desperately poor Mexican-pearl diver. But when he finds 'The Pearl of the World' he believes that his life will be magically transformed. Obsessed by his dreams, Kino is blind to the greed, fear and even violence the pearl arouses in his neighbours - and himself."

--The review--
John Steinbeck is known for the scenic descriptions of desolate yet beauteous landscapes that he portrays. When combined with the moral dilemmas that his characters often face, or the grave situations in which they find themselves, their power is increased. 

This is equally true in The Pearl, where Kino's discovery of a valuable black pearl drives him to the desire to use it to change his family's life for the better. Barren Mexican panoramas are lit up by his love for his family and the simplest pleasures of his life, and just as quickly darkened by the increasing horror of his quest to sell the pearl.

In many ways this is done to great effect: we, the readers, are on Kino's side, urging him on and longing for his success. As mentioned, the descriptions of emotions and the natural world are bewitching, and the short length of The Pearl means that the story's pace is kept taut throughout.

However, it is all dashed to pieces almost from the start by our knowledge that Kino is doomed - if he is able to sell the pearl successfully, it will be an even shorter story than it already is, and as his agony is drawn out, we have the sinking feeling that there is less and less chance of it ending well. This is arguably the novella's weakness: in Of Mice And Men, which is almost as short, there was always a tantalising ambiguity and a chance that the dream could come true. It is clear early on in The Pearl, however, that this is unlikely to be the case.

And yet we read on. Why? This is testament to the power of Steinbeck's storytelling. It's like seeing a film that's based on a book you've already read: you have a clear idea of how it will end, but you want to see how the director will portray it. In that sense, Steinbeck does step into that role of film director, painting clear visions in front of our eyes of Kino's flight from (and, simultaneously, towards) disaster - and it is therefore this magical quality that makes the story indeed a rare pearl. 

Other works by John Steinbeck (selection)
Cup of Gold (1927)
The Red Pony (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)

Of Mice and Men (1937)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
East of Eden (1952)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Tender is the Night (F Scott Fitzgerald)

 --The blurb--
"Dick and Nicole Diver are handsome and rich, their dinners are legendary, their atmosphere magnetic. But Nicole has a secret and Dick has a weakness. Together they crash their lives on the rocks and only one of them really survives."

--The review--
With the glittering success of the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby still ringing in everybody's ears, it's in some ways unsurprising that this novel is Fitzgerald's most well-remembered. But is this a fair assessment?

Tender Is The Night was Fitzgerald's final novel, so one could argue that by this stage he should have been at his peak. Sadly, it seems more likely that Gatsby was his apex, and that from there on his work declined. 

The glitz and glamour (whether real or imagined) that makes the story of Jay Gatsby so successful still resonates in the lifestyle of Dick and Nicole Diver, the protagonists of Tender Is The Night. The parade of parties and aura of sophistication surrounding them both is really what lingers after one puts the book down, indicating that it is perhaps this descriptive power that lies at the heart of Fitzgerald's literary legacy. However, in Dick's smouldering not-quite-there affair with Rosemary, Fitzgerald creates a relationship that is reminiscent of Gatsby and Daisy - and this is where the cracks begin to show in Tender Is The Night.

On one hand, Dick and Rosemary's relationship is the most alluring part of the book - even if we don't know whether to want them to consummate it, being carried away with the romance of it all; or whether to be furious with Dick for his betrayal of Nicole. This is especially true when comparing the intensity of it to all of the seemingly insipid and insignificant subplots occurring in the background. However, Fitzgerald doesn't create anything new in this relationship. The fascination that readers (and viewers) often have with Gatsby and Daisy is that, depending on interpretation, their love either seems so real that Daisy leaving her husband is a real possibility, or it's clear that Gatsby is doomed to be heartbroken by the superficial Daisy (who is so silly at times that readers can truly wonder what on earth he sees in her).

None of these nuances exist in the relationship between Dick and Rosemary, meaning that some readers may be disappointed by the liaison's (some would say predictable) outcome. This damp squib of a novel will therefore leave fans returning to The Great Gatsby for a fuller, more complex and more developed tale - or perhaps instead opening Fitzgerald's other famous novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, in the hope of obtaining satisfaction.

other novels by F Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise (1920)
The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) 
The Great Gatsby (1925)
The Love of the Last Tycoon (unfinished and published posthumously; 1941)

Monday, 17 February 2014

Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)

--The blurb--
"Willy Loman is on his last legs. Failing at his job, dismayed at his the failure of his sons, Biff and Happy, to live up to his expectations, and tortured by his jealousy at the success and happiness of his neighbour Charley and his son Bernard, Willy spirals into a well of regret and reminiscence."

--The review--
In the snap-happy world of celebrity, Arthur Miller is perhaps more famous for his ill-fated fling with Marilyn Monroe than for his plays. However, in the worlds of stage, screen and even schools, Miller's plays are still incredibly treasured and well-liked.

The notion of being "well-liked", and the use of this phrase, is something that dogs Death of a Salesman's main character, Willy Loman, throughout this early Miller play. As well as being an aspiration with which he pressurises himself, it also becomes a stick with which he metaphorically beats his sons Biff and Happy. 

Death of a Salesman is also riddled with irony, with this being most immediately present in Happy's name (or nickname, we should say, as his real name is revealed to be Harold). One is left wondering how he ever managed to acquire it, as it hardly proves an example of nominative determinism. Thanks to Willy's forceful style of parenting, Biff and Happy are both made to feel like failures, unable to fulfil the high expectations set out by their father in the wake of the Great Depression and the nascence of the American dream. Willy's self-perceived failure, too, to achieve these goals also lends the play an underlying tinge of sadness and desperation throughout.

It is also this touchstone of the American dream that contributes to Death of a Salesman's popularity in schools, as it has echoes of the dream held by the protagonists of Of Mice and Men - another highly popular GCSE text. Furthermore, Willy's desolation, and the densely descriptive stage directions, parallel those seen in The Glass Menagerie (one of Tennessee Williams' most famous plays, frequently studied at A Level). These comparisons are easy fodder for schools and exam boards, and also enable the texts to be studied extrinsically.

There are further similarities between The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman - particularly in terms of the surreal set design and non-chronological structure. These elements mean that at times the latter play particularly can read confusingly on the page, with Miller's ideas at times being difficult for readers to visualise. However, as plays are written to be seen and not read, this may be a moot point unless you happen to be a director (in which case, your interpretation can be as strict or loose as you wish anyhow).

However, intrinsically speaking, Death of a Salesman's appeal is evident. The human conditions of Willy, Biff, Happy and wife and mother Linda are easily conditions in which any modern reader may find themselves: failing to achieve their dreams, the struggle for popularity, being downtrodden by dominant family members, talking up our paltry achievements in an attempt to impress others, the feeling of life as a treadmill that slips away under your feet, and treating life as a party rather than settling down are all situations in which today's readers and viewers can find themselves. This timelessness is the hallmark of a real classic, making it clear why Miller's plays are still so "well liked".

a selection of other works by Arthur Miller
No Villain (1936)
The Man Who Had All The Luck (1940)
All My Sons (1949)
The Crucible (1953)
A View from the Bridge (1955)
After The Fall (1964)
The Price (1968)
The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
The Archbishop's Ceiling (1977)
The American Clock (1980)
The Last Yankee (1991)
Broken Glass (1994)
Mr Peter's Connections (1998)
Resurrection Blues (2002)
Finishing The Picture (2004) 

A complete list of Arthur Miller's works can be viewed on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Books Read: 2013

Every year, whether it's a spoken or unspoken target, I challenge myself to read 50 books a year. So did I manage it in 2013? Let's find out:

1. Embassytown (China Miéville)
2. The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
3. An Imperfect Life (Rosemary Okun)
4. The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (Antonio Tabucchi)
5. The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
6. Room (Emma Donoghue)
7. A Proper Place (Joan Lingard)
8. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Deborah Moggach)
9. The Great Divorce (CS Lewis)
10. Falling Leaves (Adeline Yen Mah)
11. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (Daniel Everett)
12 and 13. The Etymologicon and the Horologicon (both by Mark Forsyth)
14. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Helen Simonson)
15. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro (Joao Cerqueira)
16. Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music (Stephen Fry and Tim Lihoreau)
17. Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry (eds: Allhof/Monroe)
18. The Breakfast Bible (Seb Emina et al)
19. Let It Be (Chad Gayle)
20. What's Science Ever Done For Us? (Paul Halpern)
21. Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition (eds: Canfield, Hansen, Newmark)
22. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales (eds: Canfield, Hansen, Newmark)
23. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
24. Heidi (Johanna Spyri)
25. We Are All Made of Glue (Marina Lewycka)
26. Things I Didn't Expect (Monica Dux)
27. The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)
28. Thank You, Jeeves! (PG Wodehouse)
29. Islamophilia (Douglas Murray)
30. The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross)
31. The Great Lover (Jill Dawson)
32. When God Was A Rabbit (Sarah Winman)
33. Great Days At Work (Suzanne Hazelton)
34. How To Survive Your First Year in Teaching (Sue Cowley)
35. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby)
36. O, What A Luxury! (Garrison Keillor)
37. Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)
38. The Flight of the Maidens (Jane Gardam)
39. Swimming and Flying (Mark Haddon)
40. The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend)
41. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend)
42. The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (Sue Townsend)
43. A Little Love Song (Michelle Magorian)
44. Love is a Mixtape (Rob Sheffield)
45. Beloved Stranger (Clare Boylan)
46. The Man Who Understood Women and other stories (Rosemary Friedman)

Surprised to have even reached 46 as I was sure it would be less! With rereads (which I don't count), it almost certainly would come to 50.

So what does this tell us about my reading habits (apart from the fact that I clearly a] spend too much time online/watching TV instead of reading, and b] that I really ought to read more in French given that I speak the language?!)?

  • 46 books over one year roughly translates to one book every 8 days
  • All of the books read were written in the 20th and 21st centuries
  • Nearly 46% of the books I read in 2013 were written by female authors
  • The longest book on the list was The Rest Is Noise at 214,000 words
  • The shortest was Mark Haddon's Swimming and Flying at 7,564 words
As for the quantity of books read, I could probably offer up a variety of excuses as to why I didn't attain the magic 50: life is just generally busy (and I don't even have small children like many of my friends, so don't have that excuse). A full-time job, co-running a household, at least attempting to stay physically fit, working towards my teaching certificate (in the latter half of 2013) and writing blog posts from time to time all stack up the hours. However, I have a long commute (approximately a 3-hour round trip five times a week), and so this should certainly help me to improve my reading time in 2014 if I actually put my mind to it (and not just doze and listen to music by default).

Perhaps more importantly, which of these books did I actually enjoy the most? Statistically, this blog's readers chose Adrian Mole, with the posts on these books being the most popular of 2013. I agree that they are classics without doubt, with the first book in the series managing in particular to always raise a chuckle. The list of books that I read this year also showcases plenty of newer talent, with Kathryn Stockett, Emma Donoghue, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon being especially notable. Also not to be forgotten from earlier times are the classic comedies of PG Wodehouse and the philosophical musings of CS Lewis.

However, as you may recall, my focus in 2014 will be to read classics that as a former student of English literature (and current teacher of English language and literature) I really should have read by now. This challenge will be significant given that several of the books on the list are rather long, and especially so if my thesis that the classics offer even greater rewards than contemporary literature is proved correct. And with 50 on the list, I'd better get cracking - starting tomorrow with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. News of your literary challenges also always make welcome reading - and you can be sure that you will hear of my own progress throughout the year.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Beloved Stranger (Clare Boylan)

 --The blurb--
"Dick and Lily have been married for fifty years, and Lily finally believes that marriage is like an old tune you take for granted but find yourself whistling when you're happy. Until the night she wakes to find her husband's pyjamaed bottom poking out from under the bed. He claims there's an intruder and he's got him in his sights. When she turns on the light he backs out, holding a shotgun. 'Bugger got away when you created a diversion,' he says. The comic incident marks the start of Dick's terrifying plunge into insanity. He enters a world of imaginary enemies, fantastic opportunities, and sexual rivals. For an old-fashioned wife who accepted her partner for better or worse, there is nowhere left to turn except to her only daughter. Ruth, who has turned her back on emotional commitment in favour of good sex with good friends, is now forced to penetrate the conspiratorial and chaotic web of her parents' marriage."

--The review--

Elizabeth Taylor’s novella Blaming - posthumously published in 1976 - gave a terrifying insight into the life of those left behind when a spouse dies. Perhaps even more striking than the sudden death of Amy’s husband in this story, however, is the horrifying descent towards life’s end as experienced by Lily's husband Dick in Clare Boylan's Beloved Stranger, set in Ireland and published a little over twenty years later.

Despite a slow start to this ultimately readable novel, Boylan manages to deftly balance Dick’s dementia not only from his viewpoint but also from the receiving end of wannabe feminist Lily and their put-upon daughter Ruth. This, in turn, is interwoven skilfully with the subplot of Ruth’s own life, in which she tries to overcompensate for her parents’ suffocating relationship by choosing short-term sexual liaisons instead of long-term commitment, and focusing on her career and personal independence. These multiple plot lines allow the pace to be successfully controlled, and are dexterously decorated with carefully chosen similes and beautiful imagery.

Although the final months of Dick’s life are naturally of interest to the reader given his erratic behaviour and the reactions to this by others, we are equally interested in what appears to be a tale of identity: Lily is chasing her real self through old photographs and feminist tracts, while Ruth tries to do the same by grieving for the relationship that she wanted (but never had) with her parents, and by chasing a potential non-starter of a new relationship of her own. These evolutions also track generational differences and ensure that there will be something to resonate with every reader, or for every reader to react against.

Beloved Stranger also reiterates, in a non-religious way, the message that death is not necessarily the end, as indicated by the last line of the story, which is spoken by Lily. This makes the reader wonder if Ruth – and, indeed, Lily herself, as well as other family members - can ever truly escape Dick's influence, adding an even slightly sinister meaning to the 'Beloved' of the book’s title.

However, an equally disquieting theme that is not fully addressed by Beloved Stranger is the notion that even the most beloved will eventually become strangers. While this is partly achieved by some due to their dementia, it is a sad truth that most of us, in three generations, will be forgotten by our descendants, no matter how much we are loved. Beloved Stranger is perhaps, as well as being a thought-provoking work that shows how far Boylan ought to be better-known, therefore also a call to all of us to ensure, as far as possible, that those we love never do become strangers. 

other novels by Clare Boylan
Holy Pictures (1983)
Last Resorts (1984)
Black Baby (1988)
Home Rule (1992)
Room for a Single Lady (1997)
Emma Brown (2003)