Saturday, 19 December 2015

How to Read a Book | Adler & Van Doren

Rating: 6/10

What? How to Read a Book? Surely if you’ve read this book, you already know how to read a book? Yes and no. It all depends on what you mean by 'read'. The authors distinguish three different types of reading, reading for pleasure, reading for information and reading for understanding. This book deals with the latter.

This is a real back to basic guide on how to fully understand a book (the classics of fiction and non-fiction) unaided. It has a lot of good pointers. Some explanations are a bit long winded; I’m not sure if I feel that because I’ve understood it or it is just needlessly long. 
The authors do not dress up what the guide as some magical tour de force; they make it quite clear that what it contains is common sense. 

I’ve had a quick glance over other reviews and I feel some have been unfairly harsh in this respect. The authors are very clear from the outset what their aims are and they stick to them. As long as you read the blurb, you should have a pretty good indication of whether the book is worth your time to read. Humanity students and people following programs like the Well Educated Mind are the ideal audience for How to Read a Book.

I do have to say that I have already read a condensed version of this book in How to Write Essays. It is also has Plato’s Meno’s Paradox as a subtext (very basically, it’s the problem of ‘How do I know x? If I already know x, I don’t need to learn it but if I don’t know x, I can’t learn it because I don’t know how’). My subtext is that you should never believe that you know everything already, but rather that there is always potential in anything to learn something new. 

Overall, I would say that the blurb acts as a good indicator for whether this book will be any use for you. You can buy How to Read a Book here, affiliate proceeds help fund giveaways!  

Book facts
Original publication: August 15th 1972
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 
Pages: 426
Book cover for book review of How to read a book Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Best Books of 2015 | Top Ten Tuesday

Each week The Broke and The Bookish provides a topic for a Top Ten List. This week the theme is:

Top Ten Best Books I Read In 2015”

1. Nora Webster, Brooklyn* (Colm Tóibín) *Can't decide between them
2. Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett)
3. American Pastoral (Philip Roth)
4. Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
5. Man and Superman (Bernard Shaw)
6. Reasons to Stay Alive  (Matt Haig)
7. How to Write Better Essays* (Bryan Greetham) *Helped with my MA essay(s) 
8. Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)
9. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind* (Yuval Noah Harai) *Still being read
10. Life and Fate* (Vasily Grossman) *Still being read

The reasons behind the choices is that the book has been engrossing/hard to put down and has had a lasting impression. They're not in any particular order. What about you? Happy TTT!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

New Authors I Discovered in 2015 | Top Ten Tuesday

Each week The Broke and The Bookish provides a topic for a Top Ten List. This week the theme is:

Top Ten New-To-Me Favorite Authors I Read For The First Time In 2015”

1. Colm Tóibín (Nora Webster, Brooklyn)
I had been pining for Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster for ages and all I can say is that I wish I bought it sooner. Whilst his plot may sound mundane, his writing skills are truly divine. I can’t wait to watch Brooklyn in the cinema and to read the rest of his works.

2. Terry Pratchett (Mort, Guards! Guards!)
Arguably this is not ‘new’ as I read The Nome/Bromeliad Triology as a young girl, but this is the first time I've read the Discworld series (and as an adult). Like Tóibín, very addictive and a future go-to author.

3. Iris Murdoch (The Bell)
Having studied Kant at university, Murdoch’s name came on my radar. The Bell was written in the 50s and was clearly ahead of the time with its themes. Again, I’ll be looking to read more by Murdoch next year.  

4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hounds of the Baskervilles)
The epitome of the detective novel and very enjoyable. What else is there left to say?

5. George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman)
I was super lucky to be able to see Ralph Fiennes as Jack this year and I read the play beforehand so I could follow the play better. I loved the play; it made me laugh and it made me think. (If I ever see Ralph Fiennes I am going to shout “Marriage!” in a shocked manner at him. It also had Indira Varma who you might recognise from the Game of Thrones TV show.) Normally I avoid plays but I’ve read quite a few this year. I had the common prejudice that plays were to be acted rather than read but I don’t think that’s true at all. 2015 was definitely the year I discovered the value of reading plays.

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in the National Theatre's adaptation of Man and Superman

6. DH Lawrence (Sons and Lovers)
I read this for the Classics Club and I’m definitely a fan. If you like William Somerset Maugham then consider reading Lawrence (and vice versa).

7. Philip Roth (American Pastoral)
A rather rude lady in an Oxfam charity shop made a huge fuss about the lack of Philip Roth on the bookshelves. My first thought was puzzlement at her attitude. My second thought was ‘who is Philip Roth?' After a quick search online, I purchased American Pastoral and devoured it straightaway. She might have been rude but she had good taste in books.

8. Chris Hadfield (An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth)
I really enjoyed Hadfield’s memoir. I would really recommend it for anyone faced on a long journey (be it academia, sports or whatever); it would make a great Christmas present anyway. I don’t think I would read anything else by Hadfield as sequels don’t tend to be as good.

9. Vasily Grossman (Life and Fate)
Although I’m still reading this, Grossman is one of my favourite finds. Of all the Russian writers, I think he is very underrated and like most Russian writers, he lived a life worthy of a novel’s protagonist.

10. Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant)
Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was brilliant; The Buried Giant less so unless you are willing to put in a lot of effort trying to create some ulterior meaning from it all. I think I am going to stick to the more seminal Ishiguro works in future. (Also, Never Let Me Go has Domhnall Gleeson in, who plays a main character in Brooklyn. 2015 has been a year of Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson as far as new actors is concerned.)

So, that's my list. Who is on yours? Who are you looking to try in 2016 as well? If any of those books have tickled your fancy you can buy them here, any money raised goes into running the blog. Happy Tuesday! 

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Monday, 7 December 2015

On Writing | Stephen King

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Rating: 9/10
If I ever had to write a list of books that had an impact on my life, On Writing would definitely be featured on it. This book wasn’t what I expected; I thought it would be prescriptions on how to write. Rather, this is more an exploration of what it means to be a writer – what it involves and what it takes.

I enjoyed the brutal nature of King’s writing. He makes it clear that writing takes effort and practice. It isn't easy by any means. He doesn’t sugar coat it and it’s a very clear take it or leave it approach. For me, one of the most striking piece of advice was his recommendation to spend an equal amount of time writing and reading. Hand in hand with this, King also recommends dissecting those books you loved (and those you despised) to learn about crafting a story worth reading. I think this emphasis on continuing to read, especially outside of your writing genre, is overlooked. Exposing yourself to different writers and styles can only improve your writing.

If I am honest, without this book (and arguably my blog too) I would never have enrolled for my English MA. I’ve always wanted to be a writer ever since I was little and if I can’t break into academic writing then my MA will still help my creative writing.

I also appreciated King telling his experience of (literary) rejection. It is devastating to have your work rejected but King suggests two things.
         (1) Know your market
         (2) Keep writing
I would expand on these but I really think you should read it ‘from the horse’s mouth’ to get the full effect. I did enjoy the anecdote of a young Stephen King collecting all his rejection slips (a rarity these days unless you want the faff connected to printing rejection emails).

One warning for potential readers may be that they find it reductionist. King’s approach could arguably be denigrated as too mechanistic. He talks like an engineer or a carpenter with his discussion of having a toolbox of writing skills/tools and 'deconstructing' novels. Personally, I enjoy this because it isn’t vacuous and tepid but offers something tangible and concrete. For those who have read King, they should know not to expect anything overtly floral. King’s voice in On Writing doesn’t differ much from his fiction (including the swearing).

There was also interesting background information on King’s personal life and the inspiration for some of his stories like Carrie that provide a welcome break. It is an easy cover-to-cover read but probably not something you would go back to reference (for technical advice for instance).

On Writing is a great book for preparing you for what it takes to become a credible writer. Whilst it doesn’t give much practical advice, it provides great fodder for the mind. For those who have read On Writing, what did you think? Does anyone have any go to recommendations for creative writing or do you believe they should be avoided? Comment below! 

Pages: 238
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: 2000
Buy it here.

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

October Wrap Up

October has been quite a busy month.  My English MA has officially started (a mixture of woo-hoo and ahhh); my first tutorial went really well. I was expecting it all to go over my head but I was able to keep up.  My freelancing is really starting to pick up too and I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging regularly.  My favourite book from October has to be Antigone by Sophocles with How to Write Better Essays by Bryan Greetham as a close second.  I’m going to do a write up on Antigone later but if essays ever stress you out, I’d really recommend Greetham’s book.  I also managed to pick up a few bargains for my MA course over October pictured here:

Stephen King's Carrie, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Beginning Theory by Barry and Modern Literary Theory by Rice & Waugh

November’s reading list is already in progress. I started to listen to BBC Radio 4’s drama adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (with the amazing Sir Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant) but I was so hooked I had to buy the book straightaway! I’ve replaced the drama adaptation Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami. I’m also hoping to (finally) finish Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The rest of my reading will be reading around the two Antigone’s.

Life and Fate, Parade's End, Intertextuality by Graham Allen, Antigone by Sophocles & Anouilh's version

So that’s my wrap up… What are you planning on reading this November?

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Alas! When passion is both meek and wild! - JOHN KEATS

Rating: 10/10

Frank and Alice Wheeler live a typical 50s American suburban life in Revolutionary Road. In reality this life leaves both of them dissatisfied. Being in my early 20s, I am starting to appreciate the themes in Yates’ Revolutionary Road. The prospects of job that doesn’t excite you, of still being in a ‘stop gap’ years later and of feeling like life is mundane. I really enjoyed reading Revolutionary Road. It has definitely made a lasting impression on me.

The realist writing style was well written. Even though Yates is writing about the ordinary without any embellishments the story wasn’t boring. I found it easy to connect to the situation and the characters. They are everyday people with hopes and disappointments. Yates’ characters are exquisitely crafted as well. The characters are full of desires, contradictions and flaws so much so they could be genuine people. You can never quite predict how the character is feeling or what they will do either. It’s a very emotionally honest and direct story.

“I think it’s unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a house he can’t stand in a place he can’t stand either, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things…”

The main stand out are the themes I've already mentioned. Throughout the story I was constantly thinking about the situation Yates is describing. I was constantly asking myself ‘What is wrong?’ and ‘Where does the fault lie?’ Is it the situation that is wrong or is the dissatisfaction connected to Frank and Alice Wheeler as people... would they ever be happy for instance?

This novel isn’t even questioning whether the American Dream is possible. It is a more basic question of satisfaction. There is no one-size fits all lifestyle that will make everyone happy; sometimes we can feel trapped in by the bleak future full of routine with no scope for adventure. Is it acceptable to survive, perhaps not financially, but just by getting by emotionally? Are the Wheeler’s demanding too much of life by having unrealistic expectations? What is it exactly they are demanding... happiness all the time (i.e. a perfect life) or the prospect of adventure?

“That’s how we both got committed to this enormous delusion— because that’s what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion— this idea that people have to resign from real life and ‘settle down’ when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs, and I’ve been making you subscribe to it all this time. I’ve been making you live by it!”

I didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did having watched the film not long ago. (The film had excellent casting and visuals so if you are ever wondering what to watch then you have a free recommendation.) I thought the book would be repetitive and possibly dry because I didn’t really enjoy Yates’ Easter Parade. I found the book even more enjoyable than the film; I really enjoyed the interior view to the characters and their backstories. I saw new things coming to the story a second time too, especially with the opening scenes. Interestingly, this is Yates’ debut novel (and was published the same year Heller’s Catch-22).

I used the audiobook and the narrator was great. He really brought it to life and created distinct voices for each of the characters. Overall I really connected with these themes and it’s probably why I enjoyed this book so much but I’d highly recommend it.

Original Publication: 1961
Pages: 337
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Production Date: 2008
Narrator: Mark Bramhall
Length: 11 hours 24 minutes

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Book cover for book review. Audiobook cover.

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Monday, 19 October 2015

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Rating: 8/10

Hurley’s impressive debut novel makes for an excellent Halloween read. The Loney is a Catholic pilgrimage site where the narrator’s brother is cured during their holiday at there. The narrator’s tale is interwoven with a vast amount of small details that leave you guessing how these details intertwine. The mixed timeframe is also executed well with various memories interspersed throughout the tale. They provide a welcome break that provides interesting background information without being so long it becomes boring. In this sense, it is a rare well-planned book; most of the small details were used to good effect (think Chekhov’s gun: everything must have relevance to the story) although some questions do remain.

Whilst The Loney doesn’t leave you scared witless it does keep you mostly in suspense with a good pace balancing out the religious dimension and the actual plot. I also appreciated how Hurley dealt respectfully with Catholicism; it was not a cheap caricature and asked some subtle yet important questions over faith. My only qualms are that I guessed what would happen to Hanny half way through and I would have preferred scenery that is more haunting. Overall, it was very 'readable' and different to most books published this year. If you get the chance you should give it a go.

Book facts
Original publication: August 27th 2015
Publisher: John Murray
Pages: 368
On the cover a book review from Sunday Telegraph calls it a "modern classic".

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