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)