The Books that Built the Blogger with Karen from BookerTalk!

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This week on The Books That Built the Blogger I am excited to welcome Karen, from BookerTalk. If you haven’t checked out her blog yet, please do! IT’s a fantastic mix of reviews and articles on Booker Prize winners, classic literature and translated fiction. I love her reviews and insights and am a regular visitor to her blog.

Here are her excellent choices for the books that have made her the reader and blogger she is today!

 

Hello or as we would say in my native country of Wales “Schwmae”. I’m Karen, the blogger behind BookerTalk which is a mixture of reviews and comments on anything to do with reading/buying books. When I started blogging five years ago my plan was to use the site to capture my thoughts as I read my way through the list of Booker Prize winners. It’s evolved to reflect my other interests in the classics of literature (especially the nineteenth century) and fiction in translation.

 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. As a child I was into Enid Blyton of course – rattling through The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Naughtiest Girl in School series as fast as my pocket money would allow. By the time I was 12 I’d graduated to historical fiction and began devouring everything that Jean Plaidy could throw at me, including those novels she wrote under two other pseudonyms Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt. Of ‘classic’ literature I knew very little ….I can’t remember reading anything by Charles Dickens for example.

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Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare

My epiphany came when I was 14 and had to start the syllabus for a major set of exams (called O levels in the UK). Until then English lessons had passed in a blur and I have little recollection of what we studied. But this first day of the new term was my introduction to Shakespeare. The play was The Merchant of Venice and I was so hooked that when I went home I read the entire play twice. By the time the next English lesson rolled along I could recite from memory the key speeches from Act 1.  I recall that day so clearly; me in

the second row of desks oblivious to anyone else in the class as I answered every question; the teacher looking at me rather stunned. The experience triggered in me not just a love of Shakespearian drama but of literature in general. Oh and in case you’re wondering, I can still recite Shylock’s speech that begins:

 

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Go to, then; you come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold:

 

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George Orwell: Collected Essays

 

The hands of the clock moved on a few years and I was in a different classroom, this time studying for my Advanced level in English. Who choose the set books I have no idea but they were masochists for making us study John Milton’s masque Comus. I am eternally grateful however for their choice of George Orwell’s Collected Essays.   I can’t recall all of the essays now but it was the sheer versatility of the writing that astonished me. This was a form of journalism I’d never before experienced. One moment he was writing movingly about the long and painful death of an escaped elephant (Shooting an Elephant is one of his most famous essays), the next he was delivering a witty critique of the stereotypes portrayed in boy’s comics. In between he found time to condemn Charles Dickens for merely posturing as a social reformer and to demonstrate the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. I was heady with Orwell…

Years later I took my own steps in journalism. I never reached the heights of Orwell’s prose but I like to think as I bashed out my reports on an aged typewriter that he was looking over my shoulder all the time, reminding me of the possibilities of the spoken word.

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Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse

The Daily Mirror, one of the biggest tabloid newspapers in the UK, was delivered to our house every day during my teen years. The version on sale today is a pale imitation of the campaigning journal I recall that frequently ran exposes of corruption and social injustice. My favourite columnist was Keith Waterhouse who held forth on topics such as his love of public libraries, his contempt of computers and his obsession with the smallest, most ordinary things, such as the change in his pockets. He also fought a one-man battle against what he considered to be a decline in the standards of modern English, regularly berating shopkeepers whose window displays advertised “potatoe’s” and “pound’s of apple’s and orange’s.” His passion carried through to his book Daily Mirror Style in which he argued against a cliché-ridden, overblown style of writing seen in tabloid newspapers. It became my bible as a young reporter. This is the book I hold responsible for my hatred of the kind of jargon I found all around me when I moved into the world of multi-national business and heard such aberrations as “leverage” and “mind-set”.

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The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott

It took just one paragraph for me to fall in love with Paul Scott’s quartet which is set in the dying years of the British Raj in India. The first novel, The Jewel in the Crown, begins with a British girl fleeing the men who have raped her: Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance…” The girl we discover is Daphne Manners (one of my favourite literary characters). She’s clumsy, awkward and shy but very spirited and independent. She doesn’t believe in the privileged lifestyle or the racism inherent in the British presence in India. Nor does she believe it’s wrong for her to fall in love with a young Indian boy. Her attack threatens the stability of a regime already under pressure from Ghandi’s independence movement. In this and the next three novels Scott shows how the British in India were as much trapped by codes and principles as the Indian subjects of the Empire. It’s a superb series that taught me a lot about India’s history and ignited my interest in the sub-continent.

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Germinal: Emile Zola

I’ve read this novel four times and it never fails to make me angry and sorrowful. It’s set in a coal mining village in northern France in the 1860s. Life here is harsh but when the miners go on strike to try and improve their lot, it becomes brutal. It’s painful to read descriptions of the way these villagers toil underground with little in their bellies to sustain them and of the indifference of the mine owners to their plight. I know it’s a faithful and uncompromising depiction because Zola visited French mining towns, seeing at first hand the effects of the miners’ struggles. It’s a book which has a deep personal resonance since I come from a coal mining family myself so as I read Zola’s words I picture my own grandfathers and uncles underground, experiencing similar conditions to those he describes. It’s a book that always reminds me how hard my parents had to work to get out of that life and to find a better future for themselves and for their children.

What great choices from Karen and the second outing for The Raj Quarter in the Books that Built series. I’m most intrigued by the Keith Waterhouse, whose plays I love, but whose essays have passed me by so far and I am always happy to see a Shakespeare play in the mix!

Are any of your favourites here?

No 590 The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

 

Following my enjoyment of the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies, I decided to read The Husband’s Secret, a book that has been gathering dust on my Kindle for quite a while now.

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I loved the television show Big Little Lies, mainly because it was so focused on the female perspective and dealt in a dramatic and emotional way with marriage, relationships, domestic violence, rape and a host of other issues. Accusations that is was pulpy, or trashy only made me defend it more, so I hoped I would feel the same way about The Husband’s Secret.

There are some similarities between both stories. Set in and around St Angela’s Catholic Primary School in Sydney, the book focuses on several women, all trying to have a fulfilled and fulfilling life for themselves and their families, all the while carrying their own secrets. The idea of the fragility of the façade of the perfect life and the way in which the past has a tendency to resurface are played out against a backdrop of normal everyday lives.

The Husband’s Secret is a hard book to review without spoilers, but I’m going to try and do so. To be fair, the central ‘twist’ – the facts of the husband’s secret – is not too hard to figure out, but it is the core of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away for anyone planning to read it.

The novel centres on three women. Cecilia is a stay-at-home Mum to her three beautiful daughters and creates an ordered, perfect life for them and her handsome husband John Paul. Head of St Angela’s PTA and a highly successful Tupperware salesperson, she thrives on organisation, surface appearance and order. Her seemingly perfect life belies crippling self-doubt and she is concerned about the fact that she and John Paul are not sleeping together anymore. The lack of sex is not for any reason she can imagine and it is his secret that is about to blow her life apart.

Tess has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her with her cousin and has fled the situation to stay with her mother and enrol her son in St Angela’s school. Smarting from the betrayal, she starts an affair with an old school boyfriend as she comes to terms with what has happened.

Rachel is the school secretary whose daughter was killed over twenty years ago and whose murderer has never been caught. On hearing the news that her son, wife and beloved grandson are to move to New York, Rachel becomes obsessed with what she has lost and becomes driven by the belief that she knows who killed her daughter.

When Cecilia discovers a letter, written by her husband several years before and marked to be opened upon the event of his death, it starts a chain of events that will affect all these women’s lives and bring them together in ways they could never have imagined.

A lot of interesting themes are at play here. Guilt, self-worth, grief and fulfilment. Some storylines play out more successfully than others. The plight of Rachel, forever imagining what might have been for her lost daughter, is heart-breaking and sensitively approached, but there is a strange tone to The Husband’s Secret that I just couldn’t reconcile with the subject matter.

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Liane Moriarty

 

While the characters, although very obvious types, are well-fleshed out and believable, often their actions and motivations aren’t. If Tess is so distraught at her husband’s infidelity, why does she begin an affair only a matter of days later? Emotional reactions appear to serve plot more than character and while that is not always a bad thing, it makes some of the decisions made seem completely unbelievable.

The tone of the book is one of flippancy and amusement and at times I found it very distracting. There is some incredibly serious subject matter here and while I don’t say that the tone has to be sombre all the time, the jokey nature of the writing at times seemed incongruous. Cecilia’s reaction to her husband’s secret – which is a pretty big, pretty damn serious secret – is bemusing. What she finds out changes her entire life and affects that of her daughters, yet the jokes continue to come thick and fast. She mulls over what she should do, when in reality, she would not have a choice.

Yesterday she’d thrown up in the gutter and cried in the pantry, but this morning she’d got up at six am and made two lasagnes to go into the freezer ready for Easter Sunday, and ironed a basket of clothes and sent three emails enquiring about tennis lessons for Polly and answered fourteen emails about various school maters, and put in her Tupperware order from the party the other night, and got a load of laundry on the line, all before John-Paul and the girls were out of bed. She was back on her skates, twirling expertly about the slippery surface of her life

The book seems to be asking questions about guilt and punishment. How do we recognise bad behaviour on any number of levels – from self-indulgence to adultery, rudeness to murder – and how should that behaviour be fittingly punished? Is a lifetime of guilt a justifiable penance for a crime, or is an admission of wrong-doing a mercy in itself? For me however, the answers Moriarty gives seem a little trite.

Moriarty appears to have a great insight into the minds of self-indulgent, depressed middle-aged characters. The dialogue and dynamics between them are snappy and entertaining and the internal monologues particularly capture the random thoughts and feelings we have about others but would never say out loud.

The Husband’s Secret is an easy read. It barrels along in an entertaining fashion and I read it in a day or two. From looking at reviews and reaction on Goodreads, I know I am in the minority by not particularly liking it. Once the titular secret was revealed, the book started to lose me but it was the ill-conceived Epilogue that I found particularly maddening. Why would you create a series of ‘what ifs’ that make the main plot twist of the book a complete irrelevance? Those last few pages dissipated any good will I had towards The Husband’s Secret and that is a shame.

The Husband’s Secret has been, inevitably, optioned for adaptation and I can imagine it will work, if done in the same vein as Big Little Lies. As a novel though, I found it disappointing.

Read on: Kindle

Number read: 157

Number Remaining: 589

The Books That Built the Blogger with Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia

This week on The Books that Built The Blogger, I am delighted to welcome Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia. Joslyn’s blog is quite new to me, but I love her book choices, her insightful reviews and her emphasis on women writers. I also love her choices for today’s post, read on and see!

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Joslyn

 

As I’ve gotten older, I have found that though I wear glasses all day long, I see clearer without them when I’m reading. This middle-aged near-sightedness is nothing unusual, but there is something about this heightened focus, this ability to see truer while reading, that is emblematic of my life. Reading has always been an essential part of who I am, a way of interpreting and sometimes escaping the world. Now, it is also when I see most clearly.

Since I first announced to all who would listen that I could read, I have been a devoted bookworm. The books I read as a child truly shaped who I am and how I see the world around me. One of my favorite childhood games was to play library, creating my own card catalog and begging family and friends to come borrow an adventure from my shelves. I think it was not just the allure of cataloging (I will always love a good list), but the desire to share and talk books that drove me to this Poindexteresque past time.

One of the first books of any heft which I read again and again (and again), by myself or aloud with anyone who made eye contact, was “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster.

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If you somehow missed this exquisite book, I STRONGLY encourage you to go find it right this instant. No shade to J.K. Rowling, but Norton Juster is the original genius of imagined worlds and magical thinking. In “The Phantom Tollbooth” Milo, a boy “who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always”, finds a mystery package in his room which, when unpacked and assembled, is a tollbooth “for use by those who have never traveled in lands beyond.” Milo’s tollbooth is the gateway to magical lands full of brilliant allusions and excoriating, tongue-in-cheek wit. There is Dictionopolis – host of the word market, “a happy kingdom, advantageously located in the foothills of confusion and caressed by gentle breezes from the sea of knowledge.” There is Reality, a dismal, empty place where “there were great crowds of people rushing along with their heads down, and they all appeared to know exactly where they were going as they darted down and around the nonexistent streets and in and out of the missing buildings.” Milo’s adventures are unsubtly about exploring new worlds, being open to new possibilities, and embracing mouth-watering vocabulary. It is an allegory for life and for the joys of reading, with something for every reader of any age.

Fast forward to an awkward pre-teen, earnestly attempting to share the beauty and meaning of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a room full of snickering 7th graders more interested in fart jokes and The Babysitters Club than the wisdom of Atticus Finch and the intrepid nature of a girl called Scout. Near tears as someone shamelessly calls the book “Tequila Mockingbird”, I pressed on, hoping to reach at least one future reader whose life would be altered by the uncanny beauty and deceptive simplicity of Harper Lee’s masterpiece. “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of the touchstones of my literary life, a book I re-read at least once a decade.

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The next book that built this blogger was John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Set in a small granite town in New Hampshire, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” tells the story of John Wheelwright and his unlikely best friend Owen Meany, a doll-like imp with a tiny voice “Owen had to shout through his nose.” Irving uses all caps (no quotation marks) for all of Owen’s dialogue, a trick that is dramatic and immediately effective, forcing the reader to hear the unusual timbre and volume of Meany’s voice.

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What is most remarkable, perhaps, about “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is Irving’s virtuosity with foreshadowing. I have found no other author who has so clearly mapped out each story ahead of time, leaving brilliant easter eggs and bread crumbs as his story twists and turns. No detail is insignificant for Irving. If he mentions the color of a dress or a family’s inside joke, be sure that you will come across the momentous import of that detail in due time. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is extraordinary in its complexity and in its ability to keep a firm grip on its reader’s attention for every page.

In 2001, I found myself alone in a new city, truly on my own in the world for the first time. With little income and a world full of strangers, books were my steadfast companions. My solitude and its echoing silences opened up a need for an outlet, someplace to “talk” about the books I was reading.

Thus began my first book journal, in which I could track what I was reading and my impressions of those books – an early, private, and analog book blog. That journal was kicked off with “Skinny Legs and All” by Tom Robbins.

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There is something about Robbins’ manic, personified writing at times of great upheaval in my life that brings me solace. I still remember reading “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” on my honeymoon. Anyway, “Skinny Legs and All” is about love and lust, money and politics, and so much more. The blurb on the jacket actually summarizes it as well as can be done in one far-reaching sentence: “in which a bean can philosophizes, a dessert spoon mystifies, a young waitress takes on the New York art world, and a rowdy redneck welder discovers the lost god of Palestine – while the illusions that obscure humanity’s view of the true universe fall away, one by one, like Salome’s veils.” WHAT?!?! I realize that this choice, alongside “The Phantom Tollbooth”, makes my literary taste seem bent on the fantastical, which is oddly quite far from the truth. My taste runs towards literary fiction by and large, but I do love irony, satire, and tongue-in-cheek humor, and Tom Robbins has those in spades.

journalThat little reading journal and its successors served me well through a wide spectrum of reading adventures and major life changes. Looking back through its pages is like reading a diary – I can see where my interests wandered, when I felt happiest, what I was reading during life’s big moments. It even captures the depths of postpartum depression, when months passed without a single entry. In 2016, after 15 years of handwritten, closely-held notes, I decided to embark on something bigger and, to me at least, braver – a book blog. Thus was Chronic Bibliophilia born, initially with the idea of chronicling a Year of Reading Women and later as a delightfully fulfilling project documenting my literary journey.

 

My final selection of books that “built” me as a blogger, then, is Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming.” This book, ostensibly written for youth but truly meant for EVERYONE, is poetic perfection. An autobiographical novel in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming” is all about the power of stories and storytelling. It is an ode to reading, a hymn of praise to the importance of books to our inner and outer lives. “Brown Girl Dreaming” is the perfect defense for my blog’s premise – that we need stories to find ourselves and our place in the world and that those stories ought to expose us to a rich diversity of cultures, voices and ideas.

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“Brown Girl Dreaming” , too, was one of the first books I discussed on my blog where I felt like I was hitting my stride and gaining confidence and courage in my writing. Reading this treasure reaffirmed and strengthened my desire to spend more of my time writing and talking about books.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

I love Joslyn’s choices and her thoughts behind them. The Phantom Tollbooth is a firm favourite in our house and has already been read to the twins! A Prayer for Owen Meaney is a book that is very close to my heart as it was my beloved Daddy’s favourite book. And now I’m totally intrigued by Brown Girl Dreaming, which sounds amazing!

It’s also interesting to read about the transition from book journal to book blog, for what are blogs after all? Other than an online journal?

Are any of your favourites in Joslyn’s list? Did anyone keep a physical book journal before starting a blog?

No 591 The Bat by Jo Nesbo

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I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo and his dark, troubled creation Harry Hole. Nesbo has just published The Thirst, his eleventh in the Harry Hole series. I’ve read almost all the books, but thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Bat, the first Harry Hole novel written in 1997 but only published in the UK in 2012.

Following an accident that killed a colleague, the guilt-ridden and recovering alcoholic Harry Hole is sent to Australia to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, an ex-children’s TV presenter in Norway, who has been living and working in a Sydney bar. Despite being sent as an observer, Harry being Harry, is soon sucked into the case which appears to be the work of a serial killer, targeting fair haired women.

The Bat is an accomplished enough novel, but lacks some of the skills which make Nesbo’s later works like The Redbreast or The Snowman so successful. The setting will seem strange to Nesbo fans, used to encountering Harry in his Oslo milieu. The cold and snow of the Norwegian landscape is replaced with the heat and bars of Sydney. On his arrival in Australia, Harry is assigned to work with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal ex-boxer who is a well-written and intriguing character. However Nesbo uses Andrew as a voice for the way the Aboriginal people have been treated and the political struggles they face in general society. These passages are often superfluous and feel shoe-horned in to make a wider point about the debt owed by Australia’s collective guilt.

As you would expect from Nesbo, the book is well-plotted, but lacks the page-turning pacing of his later books. The story takes a while to really hit its stride but when the investigation becomes a catalyst for the resurgence of Harry’s demons it becomes more involving. In fact, Harry and those demons is probably the best reason for delving in to The Bat at all.

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Throughout the series, what happened in Australia and what brought Harry there in the first place, has often been alluded to. Harry’s tortured nature, his alcoholism and his disdain for authority all have their roots in this story and it is interesting to explore the pivotal experience that made Harry the character that regular readers of the books have come to love.

It is also interesting to see the work of a younger Nesbo. While not as tightly paced or plotted as the later novels, there is no sense of an author finding his feet. His trademark over the top violence is here, along with casual music references and a thrilling denouement that more regular readers will have come to expect.

If you’ve never read the Harry Hole series before, this is now the key place to start; yet, if you’ve read the rest of the series, The Bat will fill in enough detail in Harry’s backstory to be necessary in its own right.

Nesbo’s second book in the series Cockroaches has since been published, so the Harry Hole saga is now complete!

Are there any other Harry Hole fans out there?

 

Read on: Book

Number Read: 156

Number Remaining: 590

The Books that Built the Blogger with John from The Modern Novel

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This week on The Books that Built the Blogger, I’m delighted to welcome John from The Modern Novel. John’s website celebrates the world-wide literary novel since  the beginning of the twentieth century, arranged by nationality and is a fascinating acrchive of his  personal but extensive survey of literary fiction since around 1900, which will continue to grow. A translator by background, John’s posts features well over 1000 authors writing in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish and are a fantastic resource.

My name is John and I have a website – The Modern Novel– and an associated blog – themodernnovelblog.com – on the worldwide literary novel since the beginning (more or less) of the twentieth century.

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A couple of weeks ago, I saw a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.  The play is set mainly in Zurich in 1917 and revolves around Henry Carr, a minor British consular official (who really existed) and his relationship (real or imagined) with three residents of Zurich at the time: Tristan Tzara, Lenin and James Joyce.  The play is a very funny post-modern romp but also has something of a message. Carr, Tzara, Lenin and Joyce all express their view on the role of art. For Lenin, art must serve the people.  Tzara has a nihilist point of view. Art can be what you want but it is also intended to subvert the bourgeoisie.  Joyce (and, to a certain extent, Carr) state that art is meant to beautify and enhance our lives, though there are many different views of how this could be best done.

As a child, I read voraciously and, naturally, I read for the stories that books could tell. In my teens, eager to discover my Irish heritage, I started exploring Irish literature, with many of the obvious choices such as Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, Lady Gregory and, of course, the Irish myths and legends, with the Cúchulainn legends being a favourite.  It is through this Irish exploration that I came to Joyce, rather than by the more conventional route.

I naturally started with Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist and Stephen Hero but when I received a book token as a birthday present, I bought Ulysses at the (to me) expensive price of 10s 6d (for the younger generation, that is around 53p).  I knew nothing then of the controversy about the text and bought the only available hardback, the Bodley Head 1964 edition, based on the Bodley Head 1960 edition.  (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_(novel)#Editions for the various editions of Ulysses).

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It took me some time to work my way through but I read Stuart Gilbert’s study (very helpful) and Ellmann’s biography did aid me. You have either read the book or consciously rejected it. Obviously, if you are reading this blog, you are well aware of it, whatever your views, so I do not need to tell you what it is about.

For me, as a teenager and, indeed, in later life, what Ulysses showed me that there is a lot more to a novel than just telling a story.  I still very much enjoy novels that tell a good story and have read and reviewed a lot on my website but, post-Joyce, readers and reviewers of literary novels know that the novel can do so much more.

In Travesties, Tzara stated that Ulysses, which he clearly did not particularly like, though admired, was a mixture of Homer’s Odyssey and the Dublin Street Directory for 1904.  This was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek remark by Stoppard.  Joyce (in the play) says But it is we who stand enriched, by a tale of heroes, of a golden apple, a wooden horse, a face that launched a thousand ships – and above all, of Ulysses, the wanderer, the most human, the most complete of all heroes – husband, father, son, lover, farmer, soldier, pacifist, politician, inventor and adventurer … It is a theme so overwhelming that I am almost afraid to treat it. And yet I with my Dublin Odyssey will double that immortality.  And, indeed, he has done so.  For what Joyce achieved was the ability not only to tell a tale, which of course, he did, but to give to his city of Dublin and to his main characters, in particular, Leopold Bloom, his Ulysses, an immortality that increase Homer’s contribution and goes well beyond, for example, that of Joyce’s forebears, such as Cúchulainn.

I enjoy reading books from elsewhere at least partially because they show me lives lived in a way very different from my own. I have, of course, been to Dublin but not to the Dublin of 1904 and it is Joyce’s skill to show not just the street directory of Dublin in 1904, as Stoppard’s Tzara states, but a unique, Joycean Dublin of 1904, just as Stoppard showed me an imagined Zurich of 1917 and an imagined Tzara, Joyce, Lenin and Carr, in a way that  a more conventional work would not.  Joyce, Stoppard and the many other writers I read have enriched my life, while I sit in sofa in England’s gloomy winter.

Many thanks to John for that fascinating post about how literature can transport us to a very specific time and place. Do you have a favourite book that transports in this way? Remember, if you would like to take part in The Books that Built the Blogger, just drop me an email at cmac2708@yahoo.co.uk!

A Book for Every Year…

I got the idea for this post primarily from the brilliant Christa over at A Voluptuous Mind who posed a list earlier in the year of her favourite movies from every year she has been alive.

I got to thinking what my favourite books would be and inspired by the 1951 Club, I thought I would list my choice for the best books of 1971 to 2015! The reason I’m stopping at 2015 is because I didn’t read any notable new releases in 2016 or so far this year given my on-going book ban. Some years were easier than others – 1971 was pretty tough, but I had to debate between several books for 1993! Some were read at the time (although obviously I wasn’t reading John Berger on my first birthday!) and some only recently, but they represent a selection of some of my favourite books!

So, let’s kick off and see if any of your favourites are here too!

1971 – 1980

1971: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

1972: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

1973: Deenie by Judy Blume

1974: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig

1975: American Buffalo by David Mamet

1976: Will you Please be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver

1977: Dispatches by Michael Herr

1978: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

1979: The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer

1980: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

1981 – 1990

1981: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

1982: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

1983: Fool for Love by Sam Sheperd

1984: Money by Martin Amis

1985: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1986: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

1987: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

1988: Libra by Don DeLillo

1989: A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

1990: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

1991 – 2000

1991: Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1993: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha! By Roddy Doyle

1994: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill

1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

1996: Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

1998: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

1999: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

2000: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

2001 – 2010

2001: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

2002: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

2003: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

2006: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

2007: Remainder by Tom McCarthy

2008: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

2009: A Scattering Christopher Reid

2010: A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

2011 – 2015

2011: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

2012: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

2013: Tenth of December by George Saunders

2014: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

2015: Tender by Belinda McKeon

Any of these take you back to a specific year? Or is anyone else tempted to make a list of their own? I’d quite like to do the same for music and movies, if I can find the time!

No 592 The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

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‘Do you hear? That is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours too.’

I have wanted to take part in one of Simon and Karen’s year events for quite a while, so when I saw that the 1951 club was coming up I had a good rummage through my books and (assisted by Wikipedia!) found I had two possibilities for books published in 1951, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier and The Grass Harp by Truman Capote.

I haven’t reviewed any Capote on the blog before and I am a fan of In Cold Blood and Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp then, was a lovely surprise – a sweet, amusing and heart-warming tale of friendship, family and finding your place in the world. The Grass Harp ultimately reminded me, at the end of the day, of what a bloody god writer Capote was and how his personality and legend can sometimes overshadow the beauty of his prose.

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Based loosely on Capote’s early life, The Grass Harp is narrated by Collin, who is looking back on his childhood. Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, Dolly and Verena. Verena is the formidable matriarch of the family, a shrewd business woman who is stern and controlling. Dolly, on the other hand, is a warm homebody, looking after Verena, taking Collin under her wind and making her dropsy cure that she sells via the postal system.  Dolly is a dreamer, living in her bright pink bedroom and never straying far from the homely kitchen where she spends her time with Collin and her toothless friend Catherine.

If some wizard would like to make me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary bakery spells

Residents in the town refer to Dolly as being ‘gone’ in the head, a charge sometimes laid against Collin too. It is an unusual household for a young boy on the cusp of manhood, but the situation becomes more unusual when Verena tries to commercialise Dolly’s dropsy cure by purchasing a factory with the help of the mysterious Morris. Dolly is having none of it and together with Catherine and Collin they run away and take up residence in a tree-house. While there, they are joined by a rebellious teen Riley and a widowed and retired Judge, Charlie Cool.

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Image: Shuterstock

 

To say anymore would be to spoil the story, but what follows is a comic yet emotional parable of what you need to do to find your place in the world. Dolly, considered to be slow, ‘possibly insane’ by her townsfolk, Collin, the orphan and Catherine, the crazy black woman are all outcasts in their own way, outsiders who yearn for acceptance and belonging.

As they pass cosy but fraught hours in their treehouse, they find allies in Riley and Judge Cool and that acceptance turns to friendship and even love.

It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except, we know there is, somewhere: and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.

They briefly and sweetly find their place and their freedom and this one, ridiculous, headstrong action opens up a world of possibility to these characters, reminding them that they can still make decisions that matter, they can still take responsibility for their own lives.

“Is it true, Charlie” Dolly asked, as a child might ask where do falling stars fall? and: “Have we had our lives?”

The Grass Harp is filled with some lovely writing, descriptive yet simple, with not a word wasted.

Wind surprised, pealed the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose

Capote, always so good at characterisation, excels here, with every character leaping off the page. Even background characters, such as a local bakery owner, or the girl that Collin is in love with are fully realised, creating a world that hums and glows with a warm, nostalgic light. For the most part, Capote eschews the conventions of Southern fiction and by doing so creates a timeless, vivid novella that reminds us that

Love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.

Read on: Book

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