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) 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Love Is A Mixtape (Rob Sheffield)

 --The blurb--
"Mix tapes: Stick one into a deck and you’re transported to another time in your life. For Rob Sheffield, author of Turn Around Bright Eyes, that time was one of miraculous love and unbearable grief. A time that spanned seven years, it started when he met the girl of his dreams, and ended when he watched her die in his arms. Using the listings of fifteen of his favourite mix tapes, Rob shows that the power of music to build a bridge between people is stronger than death."

 --The review--

Writers from Nick Hornby to Jonathan Coe have reminisced on the music of days gone by, invoking images of vintage records, past romances, and even political landscapes. Rob Sheffield has now joined the ranks of these British authors by producing an American rival in the form of Love is a Mix Tape, published in 2007. By capitalising on the 80s and 90s nostalgia of a mix tape, this iconography is set to draw in a whole new generation of music lovers’ ruminations on the tracks they treasure(d).

Such books are arguably better suited to life as audiobooks due to their hybrid nature. By giving each chapter the title of a mix tape that he has made, Sheffield makes the reader want, while they read, to be able to hear the music that each chapter is set to. However, the book’s interdisciplinary nature is even more layered than this, making its genre even more difficult to categorise: it crosses the borders of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography and popular history, to name but a few. This makes its appeal very broad, and this is further emphasised by the accessible style in which it is written.

Accessibility, though, should not be read as debased. Despite the narrator’s matter-of-fact personality, he can also be heartbreakingly poignant in what is also one of the greatest love stories (or should that be songs?) ever told, effectively making the book a paean to his first love, Renée, without putting her up onto too much of a pedestal. The reason for this becomes apparent as we read, adding further to the narrative's pathos.

Nonetheless, this does not result in depressing the reader: by the end of Love Is A Mix Tape, we not only want to go out and discover the unknown tracks recommended to us by the author, but we also feel even more grateful for our lives, giving us the urge to pass on Sheffield's story to others, in a way that even Nick Hornby is perhaps unable to do.

other works by Rob Sheffield
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran (2010)
Turn Around, Bright Eyes (2013)  

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Man Who Understood Women and other stories (Rosemary Friedman)

--The blurb--
"From the spinsterish librarian who opens the door for her female readers to fulfil their fantasties, through the man whose life is haunted by an adolescent misdemeanour, and a sad, sexually predatory New York millionairess, to the streetwise divorcée who briskly road-tests her internet date, these stories, written over the past 50 years, provide a portrait of women in a rapidly changing world."

--The review--
As something that arose only around the 17th century, short story writing is relatively new compared to play-writing (which goes back to ancient times) and novel-writing (which arguably originated with The Golden Ass, written in 150AD). However, short stories are perhaps the ideal form of entertainment for the world today, particularly when it comes to modern city living. People's lives feel busier than ever as those of working age (particularly women) try to juggle the commitments associated with both careers and children. Just as half-hour television episodes provide an instant half-hour hit of satisfaction, short stories can certainly have the same impact, leaving your mind reeling and your eyes staring into space after reading just one.

Accomplished fiction writer Rosemary Friedman knows this. As well as writing twenty novels over her fifty-year career, she has also made a living writing short stories for newspapers and magazines, which have now been published in The Man Who Understood Women, which proves itself without doubt to be a collection to treasure. While some stories are on the more forgettable side, and others seem to have been written hastily in the last decade to be able to say that the collection definitively covers 50 years (making the earlier stories seem stronger by comparison), there are other stories in the compilation that sear themselves onto the surface of the brain as strongly as any Roald Dahl story.

Friedman employs Dahl's sinister aspect at the end of the eponymous story, which is guaranteed to leave readers open-mouthed and thinking "Did that just end the way I think it did?!" An equally comparable writer is Stella Gibbons, whose short stories mirror Friedman's romantic - and, at times, quietly tragic - tales. Dialogue is deftly and pithily handled and the stories' plots, too, are laudable for their concision and wit.

However, the stories' message transcends their style, as they are vehicles for all kinds of love, constantly confirming (in some stories) and subverting (in others) what we expect from love. Needless to say, fans of Richard Curtis' 2003 film Love Actually will be fans of this patchwork of romances, as both share the similar goals of portraying love stories between all kinds of people, be they friends, family, spouses or others, and be they requited or not. 

Unlike in Love Actually, the stories are not linked plot-wise. However, their chronological sequencing does show a clear evolution (or, indeed, narrative) of women's history and liberation, with the development of women's freedom, strength and destiny being apparent as we read: the 1950s women portrayed in the stories are, naturally, different in outlook to the female characters of the 2000s, thanks inevitably to the societies in which they live. Whether this evolution was a conscious decision on Friedman's part throughout her writing career is not clear - but equally, neither is it particularly important. What results is a delightful collection that deserves multiple rereads, and which proves not only a wonderful introduction to Friedman's work, but also shows that the short story is more relevant than ever in the times in which we live.

other works by Rosemary Friedman
Paris Summer (2004)
Intensive Care (2001)
Vintage (1996)
Golden Boy (1994)
An Eligible Man (1989)
To Live in Peace (1987)
A Second Wife (1986)
Rose of Jericho (1984)
A Loving Mistress (1983)
Proofs of Affection (1982)
The Long Hot Summer (1980)
The Life Situation (1977)
Practice Makes Perfect (1969)
The General Practice (1967)
The Commonplace Day (1964)
The Fraternity (1963)
Patients of a Saint (1960)
We All Fall Down (1960)
Love on my List (1959)
No White Coat (1957) 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales (eds: Canfield, Hansen, Newmark)

--The blurb-- 
"There's always one special teacher or student, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales regales all educators with its heartfelt, inspiring and humorous stories from inside and outside the classroom. Stories from teachers and students about their favourite memories, lasting lessons and unforgettable moments will uplift and encourage any teacher."

--The review--
Aspiring teachers have plenty of things in mind when they enter the profession or begin their training. Helping young people as their teachers have helped them. Being an inspiration to others. Using the subject they loved to study themselves. Being a reincarnation of Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets' Society. While many of these things are possible, it's worth remembering that just as being a doctor is not like being JD in Scrubs, teaching also carries a lot of realities that don't figure in your dreams, like the seemingly endless administration, the state of near-exhaustion that term-time wreaks upon you, children who can be in their chair one second and drawing on the walls the next, and uncooperative colleagues. All of these things can make it difficult to remember why you're there in the first place.

So when teachers need a bit of a pick-me-up, compendia such as Teacher Tales are much appreciated. Easy to dip into for a quick read even when you're exhausted on your daily commute or just before bed, the stories are droplets of inspiration. Despite the stories' formulaic, at-times mawkish format that's common to all of the Chicken Soup books, the collection contains something for every teacher to relate to, whether they're just starting out, are on the cusp of retirement, are thinking of quitting, or are somewhere in between. The teachers who have written stories for the book are proud to show their human side, whether they've ended up crying after class, have accidentally shown an inappropriate video to their students, or have dealt with a parent, colleague or pupil badly. They reflect on students and teachers who have changed them, whether it's through pedagogy or personality.

However, it's not all serious: there are cartoons to lift the spirits (like the one below) and stories of buying supplies or gifts for students during one's grocery shopping. All of these morsels of humour and hope are a drip-feed to get teachers through the next day, week, month or year - and that is a valuable thing in what can be a stressful profession.
But ultimately, Teacher Tales makes the reader remember that teaching is more rewarding than stressful. As teachers read this book, they will remember their own embarrassing moments, best students, worst students, field trips, best and worst teachers, assignments from students that they've almost wanted to pin on their own fridge, and in the end, the greatest learning curve they've ever been on.

For a full list of Chicken Soup for the Soul titles, see the official website.
There’s always that one special teacher or student, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales regales all educators with its heartfelt, inspiring, and humorous stories from inside and outside the classroom. Stories from teachers and students about their favorite memories, lasting lessons, and unforgettable moments will uplift and encourage any teacher. A foreword by Anthony Mullen, 2009 National Teacher of the Year, and stories from all the 2009 State Teachers of the Year. - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-Teacher-Tales/Jack-Canfield/9781935096474#sthash.bC8EbLOU.dpuf
There’s always that one special teacher or student, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales regales all educators with its heartfelt, inspiring, and humorous stories from inside and outside the classroom. Stories from teachers and students about their favorite memories, lasting lessons, and unforgettable moments will uplift and encourage any teacher. A foreword by Anthony Mullen, 2009 National Teacher of the Year, and stories from all the 2009 State Teachers of the Year. - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-Teacher-Tales/Jack-Canfield/9781935096474#sthash.bC8EbLOU.dpuf
There’s always that one special teacher or student, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales regales all educators with its heartfelt, inspiring, and humorous stories from inside and outside the classroom. Stories from teachers and students about their favorite memories, lasting lessons, and unforgettable moments will uplift and encourage any teacher. A foreword by Anthony Mullen, 2009 National Teacher of the Year, and stories from all the 2009 State Teachers of the Year. - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-Teacher-Tales/Jack-Canfield/9781935096474#sthash.bC8EbLOU.dpuf

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw": a ghost story that stands out

Christine, a blogger at Find New York, writes exclusively for Bianca's Book Blog on her own engagement with Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw", and talks about why, for her, it is one of the greatest ghost stories ever told.

‘The Turn of the Screw’ was regarded as “one of the most appalling ghost stories ever told” in the December 8, 1898 issue of 'The Nation'. Probably there are many people who still agree with this statement, myself included. So why is that? What contributes the most to making this story not only one of the most appalling, but also one of the most complex and outstanding ghost stories of all time?

We have to figure out what differentiates this ghost story from the usual ones. Everything is set for the typical ghost story: the gathering at Christmas Eve, the big country home at Bly with the stairs, the candle lights that are mysteriously blown out, naturally the 2 ghosts and the governess who has to deal with the situation. These are all typical elements; however, the entire story cannot be labeled as a typical one.

When analyzing this work of fiction it is safe to say that this is yet another example of Henry James' prose which focuses more on the psychological insight of the characters than on what actually occurred. Conscious and unconscious, corruption and innocence, reality and fiction, certainty and doubt, ambiguity and suspense: all of these play an important role when it comes to 'The Turn of the Screw'.

Even such basic roles as that of the narrator are distorted in a way. Can we trust the narrators, and consider what they say to be true? How reliable are they … either of them? On one hand, Douglas was infatuated with the governess, and therefore wants the listeners to consider the story credible. He definitely does not want to give any thought to the possibility of considering the governess delusional. On the other hand, how reliable can the governess be, since she has a subjective point of view?
Yet again, we have the reliability of the written word, in the form of the manuscript that she left behind. Douglas insists upon reading it instead of telling the story himself. People tend to believe something that is written rather than something that is told.

As far as the character of the governess goes, contradiction is also a matter to be discussed. During the story, she herself admits that she has a vivid imagination and that she is easily carried away. The author intentionally creates her in a way in which she could be both: a delusional person, blinded by her inexperience and the looks of her employer and a heroine wannabe, who is sincerely concerned about the children and wants to do everything in her power to protect them. It is our job to decide whether she can be trusted or not, whether the ghosts really want to harm and possess the children or not, since both situations could be possible.

The open ending is why we have to deal with an untraditional and indeed appalling, gothic story, and is also what allows us to speculate … what happened to Flora? What about the others? Was the governess insane or was she the only person capable of saving the children? Did the ghosts really appear? The doubt, suspense and uncertainty do not stop, even after you finish reading – and this is why we have to deal with a different kind of ghost story.

The alignment of possible realities is a key element of this work. We only get pieces of the puzzle, but it is up to us to complete/finish it. In this sense, Henry James' work as an author is brilliant, because he does not lay down the exact story, but gives the opportunity of interpreting it on many different levels.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Heidi (Johanna Spyri)

--The blurb--
"the orphan child, Heidi, is sent to live with her embittered grandfather high in the Swiss Alps. Heidi's innocent joy of life and genuine concern and love for all living things become the old man's salvation. From the goatherder Peter and his family to the sickly girl Clara and her desperate father, Heidi's special charm enriches everyone she meets. Unselfish to the core, Heidi's goodness overcomes all obstacles - even those seemingly insurmountable."

--The review--
In the midst of work by modern children's authors such as JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, it's easy to forget the classic works that appeal to children generation after generation. 

Heidi is one such classic work, and in some ways it's easy to see why children pass it up in favour of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson. It's not the traditional setting that's off-putting, but the strong religious values that Spyri presents in Heidi are not going to hold the same universal appeal as they did at the time of publication in 1880. Some adults reading it to their children may also find it a little twee - but this is arguably going to be of less concern to the target audience, and Enid Blyton regularly draws the same criticism.

However, the enjoyable aspects of Heidi outweigh the more dated elements, and make it clear why it is one of the best-selling books ever written. Beautifully-described landscapes gradually stretch children's vocabulary skills and the power of imagination, while simple yet powerful characters stick in the mind and drive the plot forward in a concise and energetic manner. 

People of all ages are able to relate to the emotions expressed in Heidi, whether it's jealousy, anger, happiness or hope. Furthermore, the basic messages of the story can be taken as universal truths, and while some may be irritated by this didacticism, others may find it comforting, and a good basis for children's literature.

It therefore seems reasonable that while the works of JK Rowling et al continue to proliferate, there is no reason why works by classic children's authors such as E Nesbit, Susan Coolidge and Johanna Spyri cannot be enjoyed alongside them. Heidi is ultimately a joyful book containing many useful lessons about friendship, family and hope that deserves to be enjoyed still for many years to come.

A list of Johanna Spyri's other works can be consulted here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

--The blurb--
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story about what it’s like to travel that strange course through the uncharted territory of high school. The world of first dates, family dramas, and new friends. Of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Of those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up."

--The review--
In order to simultaneously reassure teens that others out there feel as they do, and reassure themselves that they still remember how it feels to be there, several writers have chased adolescent angst through the media of novels and film, from American Pie to Adrian Mole. The worldwide success of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been published in 31 languages, has added to this arsenal and yet also raised expectations. So, perhaps contrary to its 'wallflower' title, how does it fit in to this canon? And is the hyperbole surrounding it justified?

As a newcomer to the genre, Perks fits in perfectly - even if it lacks the humour of classic teen angst protagonist Adrian Mole. It combines trivial events with more serious incidents, has a somewhat quirky narrator go through the standard teenage experience of obtaining a driver's licence and engage in the clichéd rebellion of beginning to smoke cigarettes, and juxtaposes sex and drugs with the value of true friendships and relationships. It opens up issues that young people may otherwise feel afraid to discuss and is poignant and superficial by equal turns. It makes for compulsive reading as the reader waits to see how protagonist Charlie develops and gains in confidence, and compels one to root for him as he loses his friends, is put upon by siblings, and experiments as he searches for his true self. These are things that teenagers everywhere are doing, meaning that Perks offers a universality that justifies the hype. Despite the book's clearly American setting, Chbosky's depiction of this (even arguably slightly unhinged) teenage narrator evidently appeals to young people worldwide, which transcends the specifics of the United States laws and school system.

These qualities even transcend the book's major negatives. Due to all of the above, the Aunt Helen plotline is greatly superfluous. Teenagers don't need an excuse for their screwed-upness: it's just par for the course when it comes to adolescence. By adding a subconscious motive for Charlie's behaviour, Chbosky elevates Charlie's teenage quest for identity and acceptance to something more serious (and even clinical) than it needs to be. Furthermore, the 'wallflower' of the title seems contradictory to Charlie's personality and behaviour. While he is more introverted than extroverted and experiences dips of unpopularity, on the whole he is presented as living a rather wilder and more rebellious lifestyle involving underage smoking, drinking, and drug consumption, attending and enjoying all-night parties, participation in random Rocky Horror performances, and hanging out with students two or three years older than himself (incidentally, this represents one of Chbosky's weaknesses: the tendency to portray the teens in the story as older than they really are in terms of aspects of their behaviour). None of this screams 'wallflower' to people who expect wallflowers to not only be so unpopular as to rarely/never be invited to parties, but also people who dislike them on the rare occasions that they do have a chance to go.

Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that because of Charlie's clear blossoming before our eyes, and the elements with which many teens will be able to identify (even if they are genuine wallflowers), Perks will remain part of the 'adolescent angst' canon, alongside such classics as Catcher in the Rye, The Fault in our Stars, and yes - even Adrian Mole.

Monday, 18 November 2013

2014's literary challenge

Pushing yourself in an arena that you love means that coming up with different, new challenges is par for the course. Over the years there have been plenty of them for me in terms of literature. At eleven, it was perhaps making the big leap from the Babysitters' Club series to Gone With The Wind. At fourteen, it was all about getting *that* level 8 in my English Sats despite my teacher thinking I was unable to do so, and about writing my first full-length novel. At eighteen, I was analysing work at university level for my Advanced Extension Award and praying for a Distinction. At university itself, it was about accepting the fact that I was just more of an intrinsic reader than others, and that this wouldn't necessarily fly very well in seminars (and that neither would dissing William Blake).

After this, it was more about creativity and more trivial challenges again, with me taking part in NaNoWriMo in 2010, running a junior book club, and (in multiple years) taking part in the 50 book challenge. But as my job as a teacher got busier and I focused on other new professional and personal challenges (such as maintaining two other blogs and working towards my translation certificate), these types of literary challenges gradually fell by the wayside. 

Recently, however, I've had an epiphany. While I enjoy light reading, and believe it's important to relieve the mundanity of our days with some comic relief, I've also come to realise that this often delivers little beyond immediate satisfaction. After reading, I'm in a position to enthusiastically recommend the book to others if I enjoyed it myself. But will I be able to tell them why it was good? In most cases, no - not without thinking hard, at least. And will I be rereading those same books? Again, probably not in most cases. This is where classical literature often, in my experience, has the upper hand: it may be harder and take longer to read, but it ultimately has a much greater, more far-reaching impact on the way we see ourselves and live our lives. There are reasons why these books are still talked about hundreds of years after they were written. And yet there are still so many classical works on my bookshelf that remain unread in their entirety (ashamedly, even my university studies at times required me to only read extracts from certain texts).

So this, in essence, is my challenge for 2014: read 50 classical works, and see how I feel at the end of it.

To concretise this challenge, here is the list of the books I will be reading. It's left certain things out based on what I've read before, and included certain things based on what one could consider to be important. While it seems ambitious, I'm trying to tell myself that I have no excuse. I have a long commute (around 3 hours a day) and this seems like the perfect excuse to spend less time online (although I will of course be reporting back here with reviews). If I do not possess them, I can also borrow many of these books from my workplace, or read them for free online, so it doesn't have to be an expensive endeavour either. Who knows - maybe some of you will even read along:

  1. The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)
  2. Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  3. The Rainbow (DH Lawrence)
  4. Tender is the Night (F Scott Fitzgerald)
  5. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
  6. The Sorrow of War (Bao Ninh)
  7. Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)
  8. Heart of Darkness; Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad)
  9. Les Misérables (Victor Hugo)
  10. Paradise Lost (John Milton) 
  11. Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)
  12. Waiting For Godot (Samuel Beckett)
  13. Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
  14. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
  15. The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer)
  16. Ulysses (James Joyce)
  17. The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James)
  18. The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
  19. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  20. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)
  21. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
  22. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  23. The Time Machine (HG Wells)
  24. The Prince (Machiavelli)
  25. The Histories (Herodotus)
  26. Othello (Shakespeare)
  27. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
  28. Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
  29. The Red and the Black (Stendhal)
  30. Germinal (Emile Zola)
  31. Chéri (Colette)
  32. The Trial (Kafka)
  33. The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
  34. Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky)
  35. Memoirs of Hadrian (Marguerite Yourcenar)
  36. The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
  37. Around The World in Eighty Days (Jules Verne)
  38. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
  39. Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe)
  40. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)
  41. The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
  42. Eugene Onegin (Pushkin)
  43. The Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov)
  44. The First Circle (

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Little Love Song (Michelle Magorian)

--The blurb--
"It is the summer of 1943 and war continues to rage. For Rose and her sister Diana, it’s a time of independence and self-discovery as they find first loves. But when Rose unearths a love story from another war, she realises that wartime intensifies emotions, and maybe she isn’t in love with Derry as she first thought she was. Rose is about to discover a secret that will change everything..."

--The review--
With the centenary of World War One's beginning now less than twelve months away at the time of writing, it can at times be difficult to believe that something that still seems so close, in that it affected the lives of many of our grandparents, is yet so far back in the past. Michelle Magorian's 1991 novel A Little Love Song helps to revive certain aspects of how life was for young people at this time - pivotal not only for being in the synapse between childhood and adulthood, but also pivotal due to taking an important place in a changing world.

This wartime setting is typical of Magorian's novels, and here it plays a background rather than mainstream role, while still not being without significance: as a result of the difficulties of the mid-war period, young people are reflected in the novel as more independent, down-to-earth and capable. Even when confronted with challenges, Magorian's characters are still prepared to rise to these and to do their best, even when they are finding these moments tough. Even if this is not an accurate reflection of how adolescents actually were during the early 1940s, this depiction serves not only to give the book's teenage audience an example of good character, but also to inspire readers to admire the characters' resilience.   

Equally, though, there is much in A Little Love Song to resonate with today's readers - not just in terms of burgeoning independence and sexual awakening, but also in terms of feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, which are perennially adolescent problems. Magorian is a master at building up sympathy and revulsion in equal measure: in our heads, we rebuke characters for being silly, recoil at arrogant and misogynist behaviour, relate to their feelings, and rejoice in their triumphs. The pace at which this is done is carefully constructed and concise, and we will the characters to cope and to move towards the outcomes that we hope for. 

All of this shows just why Michelle Magorian has been one of the most successful children's writers of the past forty years, thanks to her reach not only across present generations but also her ability to extend a hand into the hearts of the past.

other works by Michelle Magorian
Goodnight Mister Tom (1981)

Back Home (1984)

Waiting for My Shorts to Dry (1989) 
Who's Going to Take Care of Me? (1990) 
Orange Paw Marks (1991)   
In Deep Water (1992) 
Jump (1992) 
A Cuckoo in the Nest (1994) 
A Spoonful of Jam (1998) 
Be Yourself (2003) 
Just Henry (2008)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend)

 --The blurb--
"Adrian Mole's first love, Pandora, has left him; a neighbour, Mr. Lucas, appears to be seducing his mother (and what does that mean for his father?); the BBC refuses to publish his poetry; and his dog swallowed the tree off the Christmas cake. "Why" indeed."

--The review-- 
Epistolary novels - such as, most popularly, Flowers for Algernon, the Bridget Jones series, and The Color Purple - have been enjoyed by the public for centuries, with Bram Stoker's Dracula arguably being one of the first. However, perhaps nobody could have estimated the explosive impact that Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series would have when it first appeared on the market in the early 1980s. It was perhaps the first series to truly encapsulate teenage awkwardness and pretension, and it all kicked off with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, set during Margaret Thatcher's time as prime minister, when protagonist Adrian is approaching his fourteenth birthday.

Townsend convincingly portrays the naïveté and arrogance commonly associated with one's teenage years, using Adrian and his friends as conduits, while simultaneously showing adults as imperfect, with humour and panache. Despite this, though, there is also affection: we don't look down upon Adrian (too much - the rule of superiority still applies in Townsend's comedy), but rather sympathise with him in recognising elements of ourselves in his emergence from childhood's chrysalis.

The fictional diary format and inclusion of dialogue helps to keep up The Secret Diary's pace, and we are keen to know what will become of the book's burgeoning romances and characters' ambitions (both trivial and serious) against the background of the 1980s' familiar political landscape. Regardless of the reader's own feelings towards the Thatcher administration, it is possible to gain an insight into family life at that time, which is particularly valuable for those with no first-hand experience of Thatcher's Britain. Equally, though, this does not dominate to the point of exclusion: the stories of Adrian and his family and friends always come first. 

By the end of The Secret Diary, readers want to continue following Adrian's life with earnest - and with over 20 million copies sold of this volume alone, it's clear that Townsend's germination of a successful epistolary series has worked better year on year than perhaps anyone could have imagined.

other novels by Sue Townsend The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984)
Rebuilding Coventry (1988) The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989) The Queen and I (1992) Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993) Ghost Children (1997) Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) Number Ten (2002) Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004) Queen Camilla (2006) The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001 (2008) Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009) The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year (2012) Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman (2012)

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend)

--The blurb--
"'If I turn out to be mentally deranged in adult life, it will be all my mother's fault.'
Adrian Mole continues to struggle valiantly against the slings and arrows of growing up and his own family's attempts to scar him for life in this second volume of his secret diary."
--The review--
A question that dogs university students of literature everywhere is this: should we read literature intrinsically, or extrinsically? Is the time period in which a text was written important? Or do plot, characters and so on matter more? Is all literature reflective of the time period in which it was created, regardless of whether or not it deliberately set out to do this? Children of the 1980s may not have grown up with Sue Townsend's classic Adrian Mole series, but now that they are older, it is a shining example not only of comedic British literature, but also a good representation of life for many people throughout their early childhoods. And as protagonist Adrian ages, Townsend - who is renowned for her skilled social commentary - continues to do a sterling job of documenting the United Kingdom in which we have lived, and continue to live today.

Now, nearly thirty years on from the 1984 publication of the series' second volume, entitled The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, even those who are not fans of extrinsic reading must surely concur that it not only successfully encapsulates aspects of British life in the 1980s, as lived by their parents or even older siblings, but equally that it sums up the navel-gazing attitude that's particular to adolescence. Adrian Mole, though, is not a mere navel-gazer: his pseudo-intellectualism means that comedy is found at every turn from the fact that he is not as clever as he thinks he is. This approach to her protagonist makes Townsend's work highly reminiscent of that of the Grossmiths, with the latters' most famous main character (Mr Pooter in another British comedy classic, The Diary Of A Nobody) drawing many parallels with Master Mole.

However, the fifteen-year-old Mole's character assassination is done mainly in kind: we laugh with him, not at him, when we recognise signs of our adolescent selves, and Townsend regularly impels us to empathise with him as his family undergoes fundamental structural changes. As set up in the first volume of the series, Adrian remains an ultimately caring young man who strives for moral decency, and it is this carefully-controlled balance of tender moments and witty one-liners that creates an immensely readable sequel to the original Adrian Mole volume. While not all loose ends are tied up, this is easily forgivable, as many of life's problems are not easily resolved, and this is, after all, a record of Adrian Mole's life (and, indeed, a valuable social record and reflection of our own). It in the end makes for compulsive reading, and readers today need not even wait for the next volume to be delivered, as they can of course finish this volume and, in the next breath, download the next to their e-reader. One wonders what Adrian would say to that.    

other novels by Sue Townsend
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982)
Rebuilding Coventry (1988)
The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989)
The Queen and I (1992)
Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993)
Ghost Children (1997)
Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999)
Number Ten (2002)
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004)
Queen Camilla (2006)
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001 (2008)
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009)
The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year (2012)
Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman (2012)

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Swimming and Flying (Mark Haddon)

--The blurb--
"Prize-winning novelist Mark Haddon, author of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME and most recently THE RED HOUSE, explores his childhood fear of swimming and his adult fear of flying in a[n..] essay that unfolds into [...] reflections about the craft of writing and about life itself."

--The review--
A quick search on Amazon reveals a staggering choice of nearly 592,000 results in the field of biography - so you'd think that the market was saturated. However, in the midst of all the celebrity fluff and traditional chronological structures has come a breath of fresh air in the form of Mark Haddon's effort, entitled Swimming And Flying. While some cunning individuals have uploaded it to the web as a PDF, it is unfortunately only officially available as a Kindle Single, which is a shame, as this could potentially block out a significant number of Haddon's fans: those who don't own a Kindle, mainly, but also those who just prefer 'real' books.

This is also a great shame due to the fact that Swimming And Flying, as mentioned, truly refreshes the biography genre thanks to its clear yet 'patchwork' style: Haddon's structuring of the text into short passages, rather than chapters, allows for true pauses for thought, and the text's genesis as a series of speeches (or 'stand-up serious', as Haddon himself dubs it) lends this biography an especially intimate, down-to-earth aspect.

There is, equally, plenty of mileage not just in this autobiography's style but also in its premise of 'swimming and flying': while Haddon does address his fears of these two pursuits (as a child and as an adult respectively), the metaphorical translations of 'swimming' and 'flying' through life itself is also heavily implied thanks to Haddon's ability to overcome these fears and to deal with other good and bad times in his life so far. This wide basis of the memoir ensures that all readers will find something within it that they can identify with, and, moreover, repeatedly: the accessible method of using short passages means that rereads are merited, as readers can dip in and out, making further connections between different sections and between the author's life and theirs.

By laying his fears bare, Haddon shows that he is as flawed as anyone else. However, by also showing details of how he has overcome them, he is inspirational without being smug. Tales of determination are always of value - and it is simply to be hoped that this mini-memoir will eventually be published beyond the Kindle Single format, so that many more readers can benefit.

other works by Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
A Spot of Bother (2006)
The Red House (2012)