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!

The Books that Built the Blogger with TJ from My Book Strings

Today on the blog I am delighted to welcome TJ from My Book Strings, a blog I love and one I have followed since I started blogging. TJ has taken a different approach to The Books that Built the Bloggers and I am honoured to have this post on my blog. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful piece about a book that is incredibly special and it reiterates to me the emotional connection we can have to books and the memories they contain for us as readers.

Thank you, Cathy, for including me in your feature about the books that made the blogger. On my blog, I have already written about which books by women have influenced my reading, and I’ve written about some of my books that come with very dear memories. But there is one particular book that I haven’t yet written about. My memories of it are bittersweet, but there is no question that it has had an incredible influence on me as a reader.

When I was 11 or 12, for Christmas, my father gave me a hardcopy of a book with a cover that showed a small man holding a swaddled baby. I started reading the book probably the day after Christmas, and when I was done, I read it again, and then again. When it was time to go back to school, I must have read the book six or seven times in a row. The book was called Willow. It is the story of a land ruled by an evil queen, whose reign, according to prophecy, will end with the birth of a marked child. Naturally, the queen does everything she can to prevent this prophecy from coming true. The book begins with the birth of this child and then tells the desperate attempt by some brave and some not-so-brave beings to save the baby from certain death.

This was the very first fantasy novel I read. I was a child with a very active imagination, and this book opened new worlds to me. Up to that point, I had lived with Anne on Green Gables. I had been best friends with Pippi Longstocking. I had gone on vacation with the Five Friends and been neighbors with Trixie Belden. But when I read Willow—with its unlikely hero and the grand fight of good over evil—I suddenly realized that I didn’t need to be confined to the “real world.” I could invent my own creatures and my own worlds; I could make up stuff I had never even thought of before this book came along. Willow broadened my horizon to make it limitless.

From Willow, it was only a small step to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Once I had read all the fantasy novels my library had to offer, I reached for science fiction. From there, it was easy enough to jump to magical realism, a genre that my father loved. He was a man of few words, but he had a lot to say about his beloved South American writers, and I know it made him happy that I read most of the books he had on his shelves.

It was only after my father passed away that I found out that Willow was written based on a screenplay that was developed from a story by George Lucas. I so wish I could ask my father why he gave me this book. He wasn’t a George Lucas fan as far as I know, and he was very much in the “the book is always better than the movie” camp. Why would he give me a book that started out as a movie script? He always put a lot of thought into the books he gave as presents, so I don’t think he just grabbed it because it was on display when he was Christmas shopping. Maybe he simply got it because he thought I would like it. If that’s it, then he was certainly correct.

I’m sad that I no longer own the copy of Willow he gave me. I would like to say that it must have gotten lost in one of my many moves, so I could blame someone other than me, but no one in my family has ever lost a book. I probably sold it, and I can’t tell you how much I regret that. I would like it back not only because it was a present from my father, but also because I can’t find another one like it. I can’t even find a picture of my edition online.

I reread the book when I decided I wanted to write about it here. It is much shorter than I thought, with much fewer details. The story is very predictable, and as a more critical reader now, I can see where and how the story could be improved—at least in my opinion. But that’s almost beside the point. The important thing is that I can see why I loved it so much when I first got it, and reading it again brought back memories of my younger self and the many other wonderful books I read because of it. When I have a little more time on my hands, I will do research once again, because I want to find just the right copy to pass on to my children, so that they can (hopefully) have a similar reading experience.

The Books That Built The Blogger with Susan from A Life in Books

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I‘m delighted to have Susan from A Life in Books on the blog today to chat about the books that have made her the blogger and reader she is today. Susan’s blog is fantastic, I love the books she chooses and her reviews are always so insightful. Susan is also the source of my greatest temptation with her fantastic monthly posts about great new books to look out for. As anticipated, she has chosen three great books here.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)

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It took me some time to catch on to the idea that the translator was as important as the author in translated fiction although it’s obvious when you think about it. All the more crucial in poetry, I’m sure. Appropriately enough, The Reader was the first book I read that was translated by Carol Brown Janeway. It’s the story of Michael Berg who begins a passionate affair with Hanna, a thirty-six-year-old woman. At first the affair is purely physical but when Michael starts to read to Hanna, it becomes an essential part of their lovemaking ritual. One day Hanna disappears from Michael’s life. When he next sees her, he’s a law student and she is on trial as an SS camp guard. Michael becomes obsessed by the trial, convinced that in loving Hanna he is also guilty. I liked the clean, crisp prose of Janeway’s translation which let this striking story speak for itself. It seemed to me that she had paid attention to both sense and style, staying as close as she could to the spirit of the book. Sadly, Janeway died last year but I have a few more translators that I look out for, in particular Jaime Bulloch and Charlotte Collins. I’d love to hear of any others that bloggers can recommend.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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My taste in writing runs to the spare, elegant and pared back: less really is more in for me. Whenever I need an example to illustrate this I turn to Kent Haruf. As with all his novels, Plainsong is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It’s not the first in the Holt series but I’ve chosen it because it’s the first Haruf novel I read. It’s about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to her. These are ordinary people living in a small American town coping with whatever life lobs at them but Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life. Haruf wrote only a handful of novels – his first, The Tie That Binds, was published in 1984 and his sixth, Our Souls at Night, came out in 2015, the year after he died. For me, he sits alongside William Maxwell, Colm Tóibin. Mary Costello, Alice McDermott and John McGahern as an example of how to make every word count.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

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I’m a very recent convert to short stories; A Manual for Cleaning Women played a large part in that conversion. Lucia Berlin died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She drew heavily on her own life when writing her stories and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. Her stories are richly diverse, from a young girl helping her dentist grandfather extract all his teeth, replacing them with his masterpiece, to the titular story in which a cleaner mentally runs through her clients on the bus home, tossing in helpfully bracketed tips to her colleagues. There’s a wonderful immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. I’m not going to claim that I now snap up every short story collection that comes my way but I’m certainly reading more, rather than simply dismissing them as not for me.

I love these choices from Susan and her rationale for picking them. Plainsong also had a very profound effect on me and I loved the simple beauty in Haruf’s tale of quiet lives.

Are any of your favourites here?

As it is Reading Ireland Month this month, I also asked my victims contributers what their favourite Irish book is and Susan has gone for John MacGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun.

I haven’t read it yet – possibly one for next years Reading Ireland Month!

A 3rd Birthday and a Giveaway!

Today is my Blogversary!

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Yep, it’s been three long years since I counted up all those books, almost had a heart attack and planned to cut down the TBR.

So, it’s another year done and how far on am I? I’m so close to the 500s I can taste it! Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have reached that milestone. 146 books in 3 years isn’t great, but it’s better than the pre-blog days and if I keep up the momentum, 746 books will be done and dusted by 2028. Go me!

Despite having made it through another year without buying myself a book, I have acquired books through other means. My use of Net Galley has risen and I did receive quite a few books from publishers this year. I have tried to stick to my (very loose) rules and only read new books by Irish writers, but this little habit has definitely slowed my progress in my challenge. I may have read 71 books this year, according to Good Reads, but I only reduced the 746 by 47.

Reading aside, I’ve had another great year on the blog. According to my friends at WordPress, I’ve had over 23,000 views and 11,500 visitors. I was also delighted this year to pass my 1,000 follower mark, so thanks to you all for continuing to read.

Highlights this year have been the second annual Reading Ireland Month back in March which generated over 100 posts.

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Plans are already afoot for 2017, which I will again be co-hosting with my pal Niall of Raging Fluff fame, so if you have any books by Irish authors lurking in your TBR why not save them until March and join in the craic. This year I’ll be focusing entirely on Irish women writers, but there will be lots of other fun posts and giveaways.

20 Books of Summer also went down a treat this year, with over 120 fantastic bloggers participating and as a bonus, I actually managed to read all 20 of my books! This feature will certainly be back in 2017 as it gives my reading a real kick up the butt mid-year!

Once again I was delighted to make the finals of the Irish Blog Awards for the best Books and Literature blog – getting that far never ceases to amaze me! Plus I clearly take every opportunity throughout the year to show off about it….

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On a personal level, 2016 has been both a difficult and an amazing year. Since this time last year I had the real pleasure of interviewing Nuala O’Connor and Dame Fiona Kidman for the Belfast Book Festival and of course, I started a new and wonderful job at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy. Leaving the job I had done for 17 years was frightening and daunting, but I have to say that I have never been happier. I adore my new job, surrounded by books, poetry and writers all day; it feels like it was made for me!

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The intensity of my new position and some health issues this year meant that I haven’t blogged as much as usual. I am trying to rectify that and make some time for this lovely little corner of the blogosphere I call home and I just hope I can continue with the same enthusiasm next year.

I’ve never really been one for a year round up, but this year I am picking my five best reads of 2016. Of course, these haven’t been published in 2016 but you all know what I mean!

  1. The Republic of Love – Carol Shields

For sheer enjoyment, Carol Shields wonderful, heartwarming, sprawling tale of love in all its forms tops my list of the year. I didn’t read another book that made me as happy as this one.

  1. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

I didn’t get to join in with Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong as much as I would have liked, but I am so delighted that it nudged me to read this luminous, wonderful book, that was everything I hoped and more

  1. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle makes it into my Books of the Year list for the second time. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was nothing like I imagined. It was simply magnificent.

  1. The Rose Garden – Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan was my author of the year, with both this collection of spiky short stories and her wonderful novella The Visitor. She’s undergoing a bit of resurgence here in Ireland and next year I plan to read her biography by Angela Bourke and her collected works from the New Yorker, which have just been published by Stinging Fly

  1. Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson

Can Kate Atkinson do no wrong? Ruby Lennox stayed with me long after I closed this book which is wonderfully plotted and beautifully uplifting.

I’m looking forward to a positive 2017. With Reading Ireland Month and 20 Books of Summer planned, I also hope to start a feature called ‘The Books that Built the Blogger’ where my favourite bloggers chat about the books that made them into the readers and bloggers they are today.

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Each month I plan to chat about a book which has formed and influenced my reading life as well. If you’d be interested in taking part, drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

Finally, as it’s a birthday and a birthday needs presents, I’m hosting a little giveaway today. Up for grabs is a paperback copy of Mike McCormack’s critically acclaimed one sentence novel ‘Solar Bones’

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Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards this year, Solar Bones has been called ‘an extraordinary hymn to small town Ireland’ by The Guardian. To win a copy, just comment below. I’ll draw a winner on Monday 12 December and will post world-wide.

Good luck and thanks, as always, for reading

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