Meandering through Middlemarch

Cover of MiddlemarchAnother square crossed off the Reading Bingo grid and it’s gratifying in all sorts of ways. The copy of Middlemarch sourced from a second hand bookshop in Whangarei met the Reading Bingo Book with a Blue Cover challenge and shortened the guilt-inducing list of Books I Know I Should Have Read But Haven’t.

That big brain Virginia Woolf famously said Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Apparently Julian Barnes and Martin Amis think it is the greatest novel in the English language and Tolstoy had it on his bookshelf. Penelope Fitzgerald, my current literary obsession, listed Dr. and Mrs Lydgate among her favourite literary characters.

Middlemarch took me a while to read; it required more attention and concentration than I’m used to giving a work of fiction in 2014, but the rewards were more than worth it. Balancing Act, Joanna Trollope‘s latest, which I read soon after finishing Middlemarch, suffered greatly in comparison. It was easy to read and quite pleasant, but the characters are already forgotten, while the inhabitants of Middlemarch continue to live and breathe for me.

Harry Ricketts, reviewing Balancing Act on Radio New Zealand National, put it better than I can when he said that readers of Joanna Trollope will want to read it, but if you’re not a J. Trollope reader he’d go back and read Middlemarch before bothering with Balancing Act. They are both about provincial England, family dynamics, businesses and people trying to work in their professions, but Middlemarch treats these subjects in a much more complicated and subtle way. Listen to his review.

Cover of My Life in MiddlemarchReading it at the same time as My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead’s memoir about what the book has meant to her, enhanced the pleasure of both books; a highly recommended way to either discover or re-live Middlemarch and to find out more about what a fascinating woman Eliot was. Kim Hill will be talking to Rebecca Mead on her Saturday morning show on Radio New Zealand National on 5 April.

The reading challenges continue – in a couple of months it’s “In June read that classic you have never read” for A Year in Reading. I’m planning to read Ulysses by James Joyce. Surely it’s meant to be – the action of the book takes place on the 16th of June 1904; the 110th anniversary should be a positive omen for my second attempt at reading it. It’s been 42 years since the first;  I must be more intelligent now. Although there was that disastrous attempt at Moby Dick earlier this year. Three pages in it became obvious – that whale is destined to swim forever in the sea of Books I Know I Should Have Read But Haven’t.

Book Rage

Everyone knows about Road Rage – where all other drivers are idiots, your blood pressure soars, you discover swear words you weren’t aware you knew and, when you glance in the rear view mirror to glare at another driver, you don’t recognise the face looking back at you.

But you may be less familiar with Book Rage. Some of the symptoms are similar, but it usually happens at a book club, surrounded by friends, eating delicious nibbly things, sipping wine and doing what you love best – talking about books. And then WHAM, out of the blue, Book Rage flares up.

I’ve belonged to reading groups most of my adult life and here are four of the books that nearly tore those groups asunder:

  • Cover of The SlapThe Slap (Christos Tsiolkas). You don’t know who you are as a parent until someone else slaps your child. At a barbie. The discussion might start out civilised, but child rearing practices can divide even loving couples, never mind a group of ladies only loosely linked by their love of books. Be warned, it could turn ugly.
  • Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen). No one saw this coming, but in retrospect, books about animals do run the risk of degenerating into  emotionally charged “cruelty to animals” accusations. These are always taken personally. You may not get offered a second glass of wine.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (E. L. James). This was a particularly tricky one for me as I had already taken a vow not to even touch the book. So this book was already causing me significant stress in the workplace. When it showed up at my book group, I launched into a vitriolic attack on it – even though I had not read it, and never ever would. This stance neatly divides people  into those who believe you can’t have an opinion on something you haven’t tried, and the rest of the thinking world.
  • Cover of The Grass Is SingingThe Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing). Most Book Rage starts like this. One person (in this case me) puts a book she loves into the club. Someone in the group responds with comments like: “I never knew any Rhodesians like that” or: “This book is rubbish“.  Next thing I hear myself saying: “Well, you’re wrong” and recklessly amping it up to – “You’re all wrong“. Then I stomped out of the room to the toilet where I tearfully felt I would have to leave any book group that did not appreciate a Nobel Prize winning author. When I looked in the mirror, I saw staring back at me a person I barely recognised. A horrible book snob. I returned to the group. They gave me a cupcake and a coffee. I took Doris Lessing out of the club. We never spoke of it again.

How about you? Do you have any books that have have caused harsh words to be said, that have cut deep beneath the veneer of  civilised behaviour, that have lost you friends?

A book that maybe made you learn something about yourself?