Monday, 16 May 2016

Spring Shenanigans

Clevedon Pier 
Well it's been a long time since I've posted. I'm officially back from my holiday, a very 'glamorous' and very extended camping trip around the south east of England. The charity shops in that area had some real bargain books and some beautiful views. I now have internet access, an essential tool for using Blogger. It was a nice break to recharge my batteries and very well-timed to co-incide with a mini-heatwave (though, admittedly, I packed for cold weather).

I've stopped running due to hip problems. I've taken time off but I'm really annoyed as it was just when I hit the 5k mark so I'm going to have to start all over again. In better news, I had my latest postgraduate essay back... an amazing 88% on my Shakespeare essay! I'm very chuffed and it's a great inspiration to work hard. Currently, I'm studying J.M. Coetzee and the more of his work I read, the more I am in awe of his talent.

I've been reading a bit about feminism recently, most notably The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. It's definitely piqued my interest and I've started to pick up some more classics, such as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. I've been working on a review of Greer and I hope to put it up soon. My stay at Tewkesbury and seeing the Abbey reminded me of Imber court from Irish Murdoch's The Bell. I read it last year but seeing the Abbey really encouraged me to write that review. It's a great book by an under-acknowledged author.

Tewkesbury Abbey at sunset

Crosby beach

Visitors drop by

Ten Books I Picked Up On A Whim | Top Ten Tuesday

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

Ten Books I Picked Up On A Whim

1. Gender Troubles by Judith Butler
I was really surprised to see this in a charity shop as Routledge Classics aren't cheap but they are usually high quality. I'm not sure when I will get around to reading it but it's good classic text on feminism to have around just in case I need it for my studies.

2. The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh
I struggled with Welsh's classic Trainspotting; I just couldn't understand it. Hopefully this will be a more accessible introduction to Irvine Welsh.

3. New Selected Poems 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney
Another charity shop find. I don't read any poetry and I thought having Heaney around might inspire me to give it a go. After a quick scan, here is something I found evocative:
The royal roads were cow paths 
The queen mother hunkered on a stool 
and played the harpstrings of milkinto a wooden pail. 
With seasoned sticks the nobles 
lorded it over the hindquarters of the cattle.
Taken from 'The First Kingdom' 
(I have no idea what it means though)

4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Recently I've really been fascinated my the notion of gender and the effect that society has on who we are. Woolf's biography of Orlando examines his relationship with gender and provides an opportunity for Woolf to examine the nature of biography.

5. Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot
I don't really know why I picked this up. I saw a reference in passing to Diderot once and when I saw this book, I gave it scan and saw the various styles of dialogue used e.g.:

MASTER: And why, in your opinion, is he so worthy of respect? 
JACQUES: Because he attaches no importance to the good works he performs and must therefore be of a naturally kind disposition and have a long-standing habit of doing good.

I am really into fiction that is unconventional, innovative and challenging. I find the experimentation with literary styles really inspiring as a wannabe writer.

6. Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann
I've been looking for The Magic Mountain but thought I'd give this a try in the meantime.

7. The Engineer of Human Souls by 
I don't think I've read a Czech author before but the blurb grabbed me with it's talk of an emigre professor hounded by the Czech secret police.  

9. A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
I saw this in my local library and thought it would make for good bedtime reading but it's a bit boring so I've given up with it for now.

10. Homintern by Gregory Woods
Another whim. It promises to be a landmark discussion on the effects of homosexuality on our culture but that might just be marketing.

Those are my whimsical books. Have you read any of them? What books have you picked up on a whim? Get in touch :-) 

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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Ten Of My Most Recent 5 Star Reads | Top Ten Tuesday

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

Ten Of My Most Recent 5 Star Reads

I'm not sure about anyone else but whenever I'm asked, 'What have you read recently?' my mind always goes blank. Thank goodness for Goodreads! So... here are my ten books that deserve five stars and more. What are your most recent five star reads? 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Antigone by Jean Anouilh 

The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters

Audiobooks: Fiction
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, read by Colin Firth
American Pastoral by Philip Roth, read by Ron Silver

Audiobooks: Non-fiction
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Moby Dick

Has’t thou seen the white whale?

Rating: 8 out of 10

Despite Moby Dick; or, The Whale having an almost mythic status today, in Melville’s own era this nautical epic was panned. For a long time, there wasn’t much that enticed me to read Moby Dick but seeing that the juggernaut actor Brendan Gleeson was in the film In the Heart of the Sea (based of the true events that inspired Moby Dick) I thought it was time to go on a ‘fishing’ adventure.

Call me Ishamel

Ishmael has to be one of my favourite narrators in literature. In the first third of the novel especially, Ishmael’s observations are so sharp and witty that they could easily be placed into the mouth of a comedian today. Ishmael is also a very comprehensive narrator (which goes someway to explain the length of Moby Dick) and for any readers who love intricate novels full of foreshadowing then I would highly recommend this. I think it would also get better the more you read it because there is so much to potentially ponder on and to discover each time.

The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.

I definitely did not expect Moby Dick to be as good as it was. I anticipated it being a bit dry and dated. Personally, I think the relationship between Ishmael and the Polynesian Queequeg to be ahead of its time. Queequeg is presented in a very respectful manner, even with his ‘pagan’ religion, despite being a clear outsider to the Western norm. The two have a great friendship, which is surprising given the racial tensions in America at the time (understatement of the 2016). There are also slight homosexual undertones in Moby Dick.

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.

The only downside for me was the long digressions about whales. Sure, some of the facts make for good things to casually drop into a conversation like ‘whales only breathe on a Sunday’ and if there was ever a shortage of people to do a post-mortem on whales I could probably assist them. Even so, it got to the point where I was beginning to wonder whether Moby Dick actually existed. 

It is worth persevering to the end because the end itself redeems the whale waffling and heck, at least you can say I’ve read Moby DickAt least with the whale digressions, Melville (pictured below) knows what he is talking about. Melville's experience as a whaler resonates throughout as well. Personally, I would have preferred more time dedicated to describing what happened at the end but I guess it is a nautical novel so it's not highly unexpected. Without the digressions, this would easily have been 10/10 but they just left me so frustrated.

I would really recommend the audiobook narrated by the American actor William Hootkins, especially if you're a bit apprehensive about the language. Hootkins' voices are superb. Each character is distinct; faithful yet respectful is always what should be aimed for. He really captures all the various emotions, especially Captain Ahab’s obsessional nature and rage. The audiobook probably added to my enjoyment of Moby Dick. If people are looking to become narrators, I'd tell them to study Hootkins and I'd even go so far as to look at trying to see if I could watch him in a film.

I’m not really amazed that so many high-profile writers wished they wrote Moby Dick. With so many pages, an awful lot could have gone wrong but Moby Dick is an amazing testament to Melville’s abilities as a writer. Aside from the whale lectures, it is beautifully written containing both comedy and tragedy. It’s an excellent examination of an obsessional rage and portrayal of relationships. Even if you don’t care for the maritime, don’t write off Moby Dick too flippantly.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Joy Luck Club

“For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me. ” 
Rating: 6 stars out of 10

The Joy Luck Club is a series of vignettes (short and distinct episodes) centred around the relationships within several Asian American families. I read this last year as part of my aim to read more diversely. I have to say I was surprised at how old this book is. Despite it being nearly thirty years old, the themes raised still feels very modern and it remains relevant.

The main types of relationships focused on are between mother and daughter, husband and wife. My favourite aspect was the interspersal of Chinese culture such as expectations, traditions, symbolisms and opinions on topics like interracial relationships. I don't know anything about Chinese culture so getting that brief glimpse from the first and second generation immigrants was fascinating. It didn't assume any background knowledge either so it was easy to follow (and, obviously, these are just the opinions of imaginary characters). I think overall, the cultural tensions and conflicts that the characters faced were captured really well. When you consider the short space of writing for each vignette, the conflicts are well explained and don't come across as unclear, boring or patronising.

One thing that struck me was that just as interesting questions were coming from a vignette, it would end and a different one would begin. Maybe this was intentional. On one level, using the vignettes in this way reinforces the seemingly unordered and random nature of life in general. Life isn't perfectly and evenly packaged with a beginning, middle and end. On the other level, it made the connection with the characters feel almost pointless. I had just started to get into a character or conflict when it is cut short. You are effectively repeatedly dumped into a random, single chapter of a story. For some people, I can see the appeal but mostly I felt like I 'missed out'. Maybe I was looking for a happy ending, a sign that relationships between mothers and daughters can be improved. Or more likely, vignettes just aren't for me.

The audiobook was read by Amy Tan and this was an excellent decision. Some authors lack the ability to narrate well and in doing so, they damage their own story. Tan's narration was very good. You could hear and experience her emotion. Her voice is very soft as well. I listened to The Joy Luck Club in one go whilst I was making bread last year. If you have two hours of mindless activity planned and you want to read The Joy Luck Club then I'd suggest giving the audiobook a try.

For some reason, The Joy Luck Club just didn't wow me. If I was making bread again, I wouldn't listen to this. I'm not sure why I didn't like it because it has some great features, and I am kind of sad that I'm not raving about it. I think my main issue was that some of the vignettes were forgettable. The characters just didn't seem to be easily distinguishable and I couldn't tell you the name of a single character other than there was a baby, something to do with a dentist and a chess player. Some vignettes I cannot remember at all; others I might only remember what it was about or just how it ended. I agree that the best part of each vignette is the last third.

Overall, this book accurately reflects life. It's random and far too short. It's full of complex fundamental human relationships that can't be walked away from. You are dumped in the middle of conflicts without explanation or choice. It appears to strike a deep meaning and as soon as you think you have found it, it slips through your hand like smoke. If you can live with these things and find this quasi-existential by-product angst enjoyable then I can see why you'd like it and it deserves a cult following. Personally, it's not for me.

Book facts
Year published: 1989
Pages: 288
Publisher: Penguin

Sunday, 13 March 2016

TBR Pile Reading Challenge 2016

Bookish Lifestyle's 5th Annual TBR Pile Reading Challenge!

Recently I've been feeling the urge to change my Classics Club list. As a half-way house, I've signed up to Evie-Bookish's amazing reading challenge. I stumbled on it by chance and to make up for the missing January-February, I've added two that I've already read and been dying to read this year to take my total TBR to 21 (Level: First Kiss). As a change, they're ordered by the date of first publication.

The Iliad by Homer (800BC) Read
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1596)
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin (1791)
The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (1848)
Moby Dick: or The Whale by Hermann Melville (1851) Read

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883)
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
Civilisation and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1930) 
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947) Read
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1953)
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953)
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961) Currently reading
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969) Read
Orientalism by Edward W. Said (1978) Read
Darkness Visible by William Styron (1990)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom (2001)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (2014)

You can also track the various TBR challenges on Twitter through #2016TBRPile. What is on your TBR pile this year? Good luck to everyone taking part!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Revenant by Michael Punke

As he waited for the rabbit to roast, Glass became suddenly aware of the sound of the river. It was an odd thing to notice, he thought. He had clung to the river for weeks. . . . It struck him as strange that the smooth flow of water would create any sound at all. Or that the wind would, for that matter. It occurred to him that it wasn’t so much the water or the wind that accounted for the noise, but rather objects in their path.

Rating: 4 out of 10

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a Rocky Mountain Furs Company man who is left for dead after a bear attack. I was really looking to this book. I’m a huge fan of Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson who stars in the adaption as Captain Andrew Henry. Naturally, I had to read the book before the film.

There are some good features in The Revenant. The descriptions of nature can be really good. It makes you think about nature from a new perspective and with a renewed appreciation. It also provides a nice break from the tone, which is mostly factual. The survival techniques are a great embellishment, like using pine tar to help seal open wounds, and makes it more like a vivid adventure.

The characterization is really good. You can tell that a lot of effort has gone into the planning because you get unique backstories and personalities in every character. The only downside to this is how their worries are expressed. The immediate worry for a character is repeated frequently within the given chapter but the way this is represented is repetitive in nature and doesn’t add anything for me.

The second half is definitely better than the first. The repetitive nature calms down but is still present to some extent with the worries. There is also a mix of perspectives within each chapter. The action is very fast-paced in the book as well. I found it hard to follow and not very visual or scary.

It also has a pet-hate, the use of dates on each chapter. I really dislike having to remember dates and years and I don’t really like flicking back as it disturbs the flow. Again, this is personal taste. The blurb on my edition is also incorrect. It says that Glass is ‘asking after two men, one with a gun that seems too good for him…’ Glass did say who stole his rifle but he doesn’t go around asking people if they’ve seen him or the gun. I’m surprised HarperCollins green lighted something like that.

I think this will be one of the rare occasions where the film is better than the book (I’m just about the watch it). I wouldn't really recommend it as an exciting thriller because there are better books out there. Have any of you read The Revenant or seen the film? What did you think?

Book facts
Year published: 2002
Pages: 308
Publisher: HarperCollins

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A Beginner’s Guide to Reading War & Peace [No Spoilers!]

*As seen on here

Have you ever thought about reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace but don’t know where to begin or feel overwhelmed? Look no further. This guide will help you on your way to finishing War & Peace.

A common reason people don’t read War & Peace is the length. It can be quite intimidating, but this is all a matter of perspective.

When you look at the current bestsellers, many pass the 500-page mark. One survey found that the average length of books on the New York Times bestsellers list had increased by 25% over 15 years. Reading the War & Peace in this sense is no different to reading a book from the Game of Thrones.

What is an important factor in finishing any book is not the book’s length but the reason why you are reading it. Finishing any novel involves commitment and if you want to finish War & Peace it’s essential to have a good motivation. If your aim is to read it as quickly as possible, to have more knowledge or to name drop then you might find yourself giving up before you finish. Make sure you read for a good reason so you when you feel like quitting, feel demoralized or impatient you won’t give up straight away.

A book should only really be considered too long when the author waffles on and the book could do with wide sections cut out or at least substantially edited. I personally find it a huge confidence boost in finished a long book and this is not the only benefit of reading longer novels, as seen here.

The Russian style
Another off-putting feature is the Russian style. Russian literature is not like English literature, just as French literature is like neither English nor Russian literature.

A big difficulty for non-Russians can be all the different names. Whilst it can be confusing for us, knowledge of the all the different patronymics, nicknames etc. were standard Russian knowledge.

It’s also worth remembering that when you start a new book or TV series it takes time to learn who everyone is, so this is to be expected. You’ll never be automatically expected to know who everyone is.

A good edition will have a list of the characters at the back and a great edition will have footnotes. Translators are the second authors. They place (or don't place) the stress and emphasis that heavily influences your understanding, experience and reaction to the story and its characters.

A good edition and some patience will go a long way. If your edition doesn’t have a list of characters at the back, then a good tip is to do a Google search for a character list with all the nicknames, and keep a printed version inside your book for reference.

Another classic staple in Russian writings are long digressions on backstories, various musings or completely unrelated tangents. Again, patience helps and if you are really struggling then try to think of it as a short story or novella within a story.

Don’t be afraid of reading summaries online before reading as well; do what you find helpful and makes your experience more enjoyable.

So, here is my advice to anyone wanting to read War & Peace:

1. Ask yourself why do you want to read this?
Do you genuinely want to experience the story or do you just want to tick some box or be able to name-drop? If you want to succeed, you need to have the proper motivation to fuel your commitment to reading some a long book.

2. Ask yourself what do I know about Russian literature?
You might want to first read Tolstoy's shorter book Anna Karenina, to get a feel for the style. Alternatively, just be patient and try not to impose our standards and conventions onto War & Peace.

3. Set yourself a realistic weekly goal.
For instance, 'I will aim to read 150 pages each week'. Don’t feel guilty if you miss your target.

4. Ask yourself 'am I enjoying this?'
If the answer is no, try reading another 100 pages and if you still feel the same then stop. Don’t worry about not knowing what is going on; sometimes it’ll make sense in the following pages. A book may be called a 'classic', but being a classic does not mean that anyone who reads this book will enjoy it. 

If you do finish War & Peace and enjoy it, then a great follow up is Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate, a War & Peace-esque epic set during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Happy readings!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Master List | 2016

Last year, I devoured 61 books. This year I'm going to do 11 better and read a total of 72 books (or five books a month). Some semi-interesting facts from my readings in 2015:

Δ Longest book read: Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman at 864 pages
Δ Total pages read: 17,5641
Δ Oldest book: The Art of War - Sun Tzu 512BC
Δ Number of plays read: 4
Δ Number of audiobooks listened to: 18
Δ Number of non-fiction books read: 22

Reading challenges:
TBR Pile Reading Challenge 2016

1. The Cambridge Companion to Narrative - David Herman
2. Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
3. The Iliad - Homer
4. Running: The Autobiography - Ronnie O'Sullivan
5. The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes
6. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
7. The Cambridge Introduction to Jean Rhys - Elaine Savory
8. How to Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie
9. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
10. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - Joanna Cannon
11. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
12. The Chimp Paradox - Steve Peters
13. Coriolanus - William Shakespeare (edited by Lee Bliss)
14. How to Read and Understand Shakespeare - Marc C. Connor
15. Wyrd Sisters - Terry Pratchett
16. The Professional Recruiter's Handbook - Jane Newell Brown
17. A Streetcar Named Desire - Tennessee Williams
18. The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge - Michael Punke
19. A Country Doctor's Notebook - Mikhail Bulgakov
20. Moby Dick; or, The Whale - Herman Melville
21. The Godfather - Mario Puzo
22. The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Bookish Resolutions 2016 | TTT

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

Bookish Resolutions for 2016”

In general, I always believe if you're going to start a New Year resolution, it should be in December and not January. That way, you've started to develop that all-important habit and discipline needed to succeed more easily in the next year. I did however, joke with my Mum today that I should have a Star Wars sticker book and that every time I was good I could get a pack of stickers (she said that'd never happen because I'm 'naughty' - puh!). Joking aside, that would be a good way to keep track of whether I'd behaved that week. On a more serious note, I do have a list of things I'd like to achieve this year...

1. Read 72 books in 2016
This works out at six books a month. Last year I planned on reading four books a month but ended up reading five. I'm already regretting the first book of the year, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Don't get me wrong, it's a comical book of its time for any of you who've read from the 1700s but at over 800 pages I feel like I've failed my reading target already...

2. Read more plays
I really enjoyed both versions of Antigone by Sophocles and Jean Anouilh. This year I'm planning to incorporate more dramas into my reading corpus starting with A Streetcar Called Desire by Tennessee Williams and some Shakespeare (Coriolanus and A Merchant of Venice).

3. Read more non-fiction
Again, last year I branched out more into non-fiction and it didn't disappoint. This year, I'm going to be reading on feminist and post-colonial themes for my English MA as well as other related topics, so this will contribute nicely towards my goal. I have almost finished reading The Cambridge Companion to Narrative that I found very insightful (and not as boring as you may think!)

4. Blog more consistently*
Discipline for the past few years has not been my forte. I'm really going to try to be a better blogger, I have no excuse for my poor time management. 
*(& figure out why Blogger plays up with my paragraph spacing and font colour <insert moody face here>)

5. Write reviews as soon as I finish a book
And also make notes as I go along for points to raise and quotes. This will help me blog more consistently too.

6. Write fiction for at least two hours a week
Bookish in a way. I need to start taking my creative writing and dream of being a writer more seriously. Whilst two hours may seem small fry, I don't want to go too big too soon in terms of making demands on myself. I also read that setting your target as a minimum helps prevent you feeling guilty and encourages you to over-achieve so here's hoping.

7. Read 50 pages before bed
Technically this should be 'Read 50 pages before going to sleep' as I read in bed with a cup of tea. Reading always makes me sleep better and reading an hour a day will help me reach my goal to read 72 books this year.

8. Read Don Quixote by Cervantes
I've always been fascinated by this cult figure of Don Quixote / Don Juan having first been introduced to 'him' by George Bernard Shaw. This makes for a nice tie-in and background reading for my English MA too. 

9. Read War & Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Having read Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, which in part was Grossman's own War & Peace set during the Battle of Stalingrad, and watching the BBC TV adaption has given me the impetus to read it. I read Anna Karenina and enjoyed it but somehow felt that War & Peace was a pointless read. Hopefully this year I will read it.

10. Stick to my bookish lists and resolutions! 
2016 will be the year I take more responsibility for my time organization and reintroduce the discipline and determination, which ironically enough, I had in my teens.

So those are my resolutions for what I want to achieve in 2016. I've tried to go for ones that are complimentary and revolve around better habits. 

What are your resolutions? What is your advice for sticking to them? I'm interested to find out so please comment below :-)