Archive for the 'holiday reading' Category

George and Weedon Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody

September 17, 2016

51qjywbue3l-_ac_us160_This semi-humorous Victorian work conceals quite a hefty punch behind its deliberately understated exterior. I first came across it at school and enjoyed it then; I think it’s the first time I’ve been back to it, whilst on a recent touring holiday, courtesy of the excellent Librivox website.

For a couple of years Charles Pooter keeps a diary of his life beginning from the day he and his wife Carrie move into their new rented house in Holloway; they are soon joined by their (for Victorian times) raffish son Lupin who has been ‘let go’ from his job with a bank in Oldham. Charles has a job with a broking firm of some kind in the City, and is moderately successful. They both have a group of rather dull and sometimes boorish friends and relations.

If everything so far sounds almost deliberately dull and boring, that’s because surely it’s meant to. The adjective, ‘pooterish’, has passed into the language. The family is very petty bourgeois in its tastes, lacking in wit, liveliness, interests, not wanting to offend anyone, or to be offended. No-one has an interesting or original thought in their head… The most enterteining and subversive moment of the novel comes when the Pooters somehow end up at a social occasion where the guest of honour is an American writer who deliberately challenges his hosts’ attitudes, beliefs, and everything they do and stand for – no doubt in the stereotypically rude and outspoken American fashion that people used to condemn in Victorian times – and Charles Pooter, to his horror, finds himself acknowledging the truth of what the guest is saying and agreeing with him! Fortunately, this wobble is only brief, and our anti-hero shakes off his temporary rebellion and returns to normal.

What is really challenging about The Diary of a Nobody, what makes is so very different from that other gem from those times, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, is that the Grossmiths inevitably get their reader reflecting on her or himself: we come to realise, as we mock the Pooters for their tedious ordinariness, that there is some, if not a lot, of that ordinariness in our own lives, no matter what story we may tell ourselves and others about how interesting and exciting our lives are. For do not we live in ordinary houses, often in suburbs, where we wrestle with the daily chores of shopping, tradesmen, making the house into a nice home, whilst dealing with our awkward children? And are not our values, beliefs and attitudes replicas of those with whom we spend our time? Are we really any different from the norm, or are we kidding ourselves?

If what we seek in our lives is contentment, and surely there is nothing wrong with that as a goal, then the ending of the book is comforting, as Mr Pooter gets a promotion which means he will be financially secure for the rest of his life, and his son lands a decent job. But it’s also very scary: where is the excitement, the adventure we feel we need?

The other wonderfully subversive thing about the book is its indirect challenge to the realist fallacy, that idea that fiction or cinema or television can ever portray our existence in a ‘true to life’ or realist fashion, rather than cut and edit for the sake of plot and excitement: The Diary of a Nobody really does consist of all that tedious stuff that has to be left out of so-called realist works to make them bearable: no-one in War and Peace argues with the butcher’s boy, moves a boot-scraper, paints the stairs, gets lost in a cab, or any of a host of other unbelievably dull and tedious things; here they do. God, it’s boring, and the scary thing is, it could be us…

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

November 24, 2015

51WZ6k3-NzL._AA115_As I’ve re-read and listened to the stories, I’ve come to realise that the setting –Victorian London – is far more important than I’d realised, or given Conan Doyle credit for: the sense of pride in the largest city in the world, at the heart of the Empire, with its wealth and its grittiness and its underworld. The crimes are always mentionable, the details never dwelt upon, in the way such things are today…

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes – the second time such an enterprise has been undertaken – is three magnificently produced volumes, which I was given for Christmas a decade ago. Two volumes contain all the short stories in the canon, and the third volume the longer tales. The annotation is copious, detailed, and as all decent annotation is, on the page alongside the stories rather than tucked away at the back of the book, so that any and every note you want to read is instantly accessible. And the annotation is probably needed now, to enable new generations of readers to make sense of all the small details, places that have disappeared, and other minutiae that Conan Doyle has his characters refer to. There are photographs and line drawings from the time, maps and diagrams, and a chronology of the times so that one can situate world events, too, although it’s only when we approach the First World War that Holmes and Watson seem to be involved in the periphery of actual events. There are also many pages of references to scholarly articles on each of the stories that have been published in various magazines devoted to Holmes, over the years, and also web links, which are well worth exploring.

The two characters are still at the heart of the stories for me, and I still marvel at the way Conan Doyle developed the formula which so many other have since followed and copied: you need the two characters for their interaction, and, as I mentioned above, the sense of place provides a pretty secure anchor, whilst the chaos of crime unfolds and is then (usually) resolved. Colin Dexter put Morse and Lewis in Oxford, and for me, that combination also worked well, as does Ellis Peters‘ pairing of monk and sheriff in the Brother Cadfael series, with its Shrewsbury setting.

If you want a treat from someone in the festive season, then the three volumes of the Annotated Homes are a great idea. The only downside is that they are quite seriously weighty and so do not provide for a portable reading copy: you need a sofa to enjoy them, really. The best easily portable set remains the old (and only available second-hand) two-volume hardback set from John Murray which is what I take on holiday…

5114XAWT1SL._AA115_

John Muir: Steep Trails (Librivox)

July 24, 2015

John Muir was a Scotsman who moved to the United States and spent the rest of his life there; he was a naturalist and an explorer, when there were still unexplored parts of the US, particularly in the west. Here he writes about California, Washington state, Nevada, Oregon and Utah (with the apparently obligatory disquisition, for a ninteenth-century writer, on the Mormons and their habits – and he is quite balanced and fair), about their wildernesses and their landscapes and their astonishing natural beauty.

He was often a solitary traveller and explorer, and to us appears to take some astonishing risks, setting off into unexplored mountainous areas with little food or equipment, and often in wintry seasons. However, it’s clear he possessed a great deal of commonsense, as well as the ability to read the signs wherever he was, and so managed not to come to any mischief, although there were clearly some tricky moments…

It’s always evident how much he loved the natural world, and to be surrounded by it, alone in its beauty; he was one of the prime movers in the setting up of the US National Parks system, so that so much that is spectacular was preserved for the nation’s posterity. He wrote a number of books about different parts of the US, all of which are worth a read.

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website (www.litteratureaudio.com) dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

Long Reads…

September 23, 2014

I have a (very large) pile of books that sit waiting to be read, and gradually work my way through them, often picking the next one on a whim; books get added as one book suggests the need or desire to read another. And then, there’s a small, select pile of large tomes, that are waiting to be read one day. These are different from the rest: I know they need concentration, or a long stretch of time – such as a holiday – to enable me to get through them. I don’t mean this to sound like a chore, as it isn’t.

So I had saved up John Eliot Gardiner’s biography of Bach (see my previous post) since last Christmas (it was a present) deliberately for the holiday I recently took in Saxony and Thuringia in the footsteps of the composer. As I remarked, it was a challenging read, and it took me over a fortnight. I normally get through books rather more rapidly than that. I have on my shelves a couple of enormous French tomes, one on deserts, one on travel in Russia – over a thousand pages in each anthology – which I’m saving up for the right moment, probably another long holiday somewhere.

I wondered if other readers select books like this, and also found myself thinking about my attention span. I’ve read a good deal lately suggesting that the internet, browsing and hypertext links are perhaps reducing our attention spans (I think the jury is still out on this one, really) and when I was teaching in schools I noticed how textbooks were changing, no longer presenting students with chapters of text to read, but double-page spreads, with lots of little boxes in different colours, nothing in any real depth or detail, skimming the surface of a topic. I use the internet a lot, and cannot imagine life without it: am I less able to concentrate on longer and more demanding texts? Too bad, if that is the case, I guess.

Confession: there are books, bought with the thought ‘that looks really interesting…’ that continue to sink down the unread pile, and which, if I’m really honest, will never be read, and ought to be given to a charity shop. There are one or two books on my bookshelves which have been there, unopened, for half a lifetime…

Too many books?

April 14, 2014

Increasingly, I’m feeling I have too many books. Before you begin wondering about the state of my mental health, I’ll try and explain why. First, some facts. My spreadsheet tells me I have 2373 books in my library; the accession number is 3640, so over my lifetime I’ve disposed of about 1300 items… which was a bit of a shock, when I realised. These books take up a lot of room, several rooms, in fact. And they weigh a ton…literally.

Why keep a book?

Because I bought it, is the obvious answer.

Because I want to read it, one day…

Because I read it and enjoyed it, and want to read it again (perhaps) haha! But how to decide what to re-read, when there are so many unread books? If they weren’t there nagging me, would I bother?

Because I read it, enjoyed it, and will definitely re-read it… probably have, several times already. Think Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Umberto Eco, Josef Skvorecky and others, in no particular order.

Why get rid of a book?

Because I have several copies of the same book. Increasingly, I buy something by mistake, that I already have. But also, over the years, I have accumulated different editions of books I particularly like: nice copies of Jane Austen for my library, a much more portable edition to take away for holiday reading. Library and study copies of some books. Excuses!

Because I didn’t particularly like it. Actually, I’m not bad at getting rid of these.

Because it’s out of date: reference books, critical works and the like.

Because I’ll never read it again… time is short, and I see books on the shelves that say ‘you enjoyed me once’, but I know I haven’t the eyeball time to spend.

Because lots of books are now available as free downloads. This ought to make it easier, though the poor quality of downloads and the way that formatting sometimes goes all over the place on e-readers puts me off, as does the fact that I often have nice editions of classics.

So, there are a lot of books that I could get rid of. It’s rare that one can get very much for secondhand books as there are so many of them on offer all over the place, so the money spent is put down to entertainment and pleasure at some time in the past, and the books go to some charitable cause. And yet, I find it harder than getting rid of CDs, DVDs, old gadgets and general stuff… in the end, my library is part of my identity; it says who I am and how I got here, and reducing it in size is a bit like amputation (OK, OTT image, perhaps) getting rid of a part of myself.

My library defines me, so I keep it. Don’t ask to come and see it, you’ll think I’m very weird.

The Joys of re-reading…

December 24, 2013

I know some people who never re-read a book, but many more who do. I’ve always enjoyed re-visiting books I’ve read before, often after quite a number of years, and this post is provoked by my going back to The Master & Margarita; it’s my fourth read, but after a gap of twenty years. I’ll write about the book itself later.

The book I’ve re-read most times is Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird, but that’s not really a fair one, because, even though it’s a wonderful book, I’ve only read it so many times from having to teach it as a GCSE examination text – and I always ensured that we did read it through from cover to cover in class, not a word omitted. However, that experience often led me to reflect on what I get from revisiting a much-loved text.

For starters, obviously the first time one reads a book, one’s progress is largely plot-driven, as in we want to know how the story will end, and much detail may well be missed. So, second and further times around, we can concentrate more on the details, the delineation of character, subtleties we may have missed, the writer’s use of language, her/his message to the reader… anything, really. And my enjoyment is certainly enriched. Because I’m a different person twenty years on, my take on a book can be completely different next time around.

Of course, there are many books that I wouldn’t waste eyeball time on a second time. But what do I re-read? Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s quite often old favourites like Sherlock Holmes and other detective stories… time allows me to forget just enough of the plot to allow enough mystery in the next re-read. I often come back to classics like Jane Austen, and deliberately set out to focus on a certain aspect of the writing or the plot that I have become curious about, often due to something else I’ve read in the interim.

What makes a book worth re-reading? It has to have made some kind of deeper impression, I think, either through plot, character or ideas that the writer is playing with; it’s really hard to pin down and surely operates at a gut or emotional rather than a rational level: a book has spoken strongly to my condition in some way or other.

When do I re-read? When I’m bored, often picking up an old favourite wakes me up again; when I’m indecisive – there are so many unread books on the pile all calling to be picked up that I cannot choose and take refuge in one I’ve read before; when I’m on holiday if I’m only taking one book with me and I don’t want the risk of being disappointed by something new.

Often I’m reading something and it will suddenly – through an association perhaps – make me realise that I need to re-read X next, and so I do. And it does often feel like renewing an old acquaintance, or meeting up with an old friend.

Eye Candy again

April 12, 2013

Another of my favourite relaxation genres is detective fiction.  For me, Sherlock Holmes is the greatest, and I’ve read and re-read, and listened repeatedly – I think one of the good things about a well-crafted detective story is that over time sufficient of the plot should become vague enough in one’s mind to allow re-reading without the ending being too obvious too soon.

Along with Sherlock Holmes, I have developed a liking for Ellis Peters‘ Brother Cadfael novels over the years. They are well-crafted, and the setting is very convincing – possibly riding on the back of Eco‘s Name of the Rose? – mediaeval and monastic, with a hero with a past to make him interesting, and the Shropshire setting, which is an added attraction for me as I grow to know and appreciate the area. So, I recently re-read One Corpse Too Many. It’s one of the very early ones, so the characters are still developing and have a way to go before they become fully fledged and settled as they are later in the series. There’s rather less about the daily life in a mediaeval monastery and town than we get later on, too. Peters fascinates on several levels – she weaves in historical detail effectively and convincingly – though as I’m no expert on twelfth century England, I don’t know how accurate she is; she recognises that there are similarities and differences between human beings and their behaviours over the centuries, and she manages to make us care briefly about her characters.

Blandings

April 12, 2013

I imagine readers have their own version of what I call ‘eye candy’ – lighter books that they read when on holiday, ill or in need of a change. I’ve added PG Wodehouse‘s Blandings novels to my list, prompted largely by the recent BBC Television series which I really enjoyed.  They are trivial, silly and a lot of fun. The plots are very far-fetched and often full of holes, but the language is superb, with lots of hidden references to delight this reader.  And then, there is trying to work out in which real places the stories are set.

The stories are peculiarly British, as are the characters, and the era of the vague 1920s is effortlessly created. I think Uncle Fred is my favourite character, although on TV I really enjoyed Timothy Spall as Lord Emsworth. Thoroughly recommended as holiday reading.

%d bloggers like this: