Going clubbing

Cover: The LuminariesWhen one of my Book Clubs decided to read the Man Booker 2013 shortlist I was a bit sceptical. Yes, we could then decide if  The Luminaries deserved to win, but we would also have to read it. And – this just in – it is very long. Anyway, it all turned out swimmingly and I read and loved books I would never have looked at if they hadn’t been on the list.

Reading from a list was so successful we’re  casting around for another one. My suggestion was to consult the handy Literary prizes and book awards  page on our very own Christchurch City Libraries web site.  The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 looks promising,  mostly because of the judges:

  • Mary Beard, author, hugely entertaining television presenter,  blogger and admirable human being who has risen above some very nasty verbal abuse without being insufferable about it
  • Denise Mina, “the Queen of Tartan Noir” and owner of one of the best quiffs ever
  • Caitlin Moran, very funny, very rude and a woman who is is unafraid of the word feminist
  • Sophie Raworth, one of the BBC presenters at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Truly impressive
  • Helen Fraser, the chair of the judging panel and former Managing Director of Penguin U.K. She may not have written a book, but has surely read a few good ones

Cover: A girl is a half-formed thingA list chosen by this crew must be preferable to the system my other Book Club uses, where the members tick titles on a catalogue at the start of the year.  They then shiftily deny any knowledge of the books that arrive each month and steadfastly refuse to read them. Or perhaps that’s just me.

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 was Eimar McBride, who must be good, because if she could be a literary character she would be Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch and because she chose Anne of Green Gables as the defining book of her childhood. Although the book she always recommends is Ulysses –  “why don’t more people listen?” Because it’s impossible to read, that’s why.

Using the Baileys list also offers the opportunity to swig down the sponsor’s product (or rather sip it in a genteel fashion) while discussing the finer points of literary fiction. A winning combination.

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.

Bibliographically Challenged

Because I haven’t got enough reading to be going on with this year, what with a For Later list of only 410 titles Cover: Franny and Zooeyand a New Year’s Resolution to read a mere seven books off The Guardian Best Books of 2013 list, I eagerly agreed to a colleague’s challenge to play Reading Bingo with her.

When I counter-challenged her to #readwomen2014 she raised me A Year in Reading and we were off. So far I have managed four things off Reading Bingo, but my sheet doesn’t have the tidy lines that were so exciting on Housie cards in 1970s booze barns, more a scattered set of crosses. I’m too busy trying to make one book do for two challenges to be systematic.

So far I’ve only managed it with Franny and Zooey. It met both the Reading Bingo challenge of reading “A book that is more than 10 years old” and the Year in Reading challenge “In January read a book published the same year you were born”.

The trouble with reading a lot is that it just makes you want to read more. Franny and Zooey reminded me of how much I loved the Glass family and how I should go back and read all the Glass stories. At least they’re short.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Guardian Best Books of 2013) made me think I should read about her family and more of her fiction before I embarked on her biography. Happily I could use The Knox Brothers for “A book of non-fiction” in Reading Bingo.  And perhaps the The Golden Child could do for “The first book by a favourite author”(it’s her first fiction book).

Then I foolishly left myself short of books when on holiday and had to buy a second-hand copy of Middlemarch. Cover: My life in MiddlemarchI’d  always planned to read it after listening to it on talking book, but it’s languished on my For Later list for years. The task became more urgent when it had to be read before My Life in Middlemarch, a book about how important books can be in our lives. As if I need to read about reading. But it has had great reviews and Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker pieces are always good.

Unfortunately I’m so deep in my reading challenge addiction I chose an edition of Middlemarch with a blue cover  just so I could cross off the “A book with a blue cover” Reading Bingo  square . It’s so musty it nearly asphyxiates me every time I open it  and as I finish each page it detaches itself from the ancient glue that has held the book together for the last 40 years.

And now Book Club has decided to read the 2013 Man Booker short list so we can judge whether The Luminaries deserved to win.  And I’ve already read the shortest book on the list. Sigh.

It’s a bit tragic, but the challenges have actually given me a new enthusiasm for reading. Now to manipulate the Man Booker short list titles into meeting at least two criteria of my reading challenges each…

Well-dressed Fiction

The most sartorially resplendent character in a work of fiction?
Several blogs have recently pondered just this question. It has also forced several library types to stop, think  and scratch their immaculately coiffed heads. C’est très difficile!

One complicating factor is the unholy number of novels which have been subjected to film or television treatment and therefore the meddling attention of a costume department. Was Holly Golightly a bonafide fashion plate? Or is she merely the cinematic creature of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy?

The other worrying aspect to fashion and fictional characters is that, generally, well-dressed characters are portrayed as vile and vapid; I’m thinking here of the Land of Plenty’s favourite psycho Patrick Bateman and Runway magazine editor-in-chief  Miranda Priestly in The devil wears Prada.

I shudder to imagine what subtle character traits my own modish (or not) choices would indicate if, heaven forbid, I was dropped into a novel. Would my penchant for corsages and other floral accessories reveal me as a trivial female popinjay, a mere fribble and shallow coxcomb?! But back to the well-dressed…

Some genre contenders might include:

  • Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane -The fashion forward Deco sleuths showed stuffy Oxford dons just how to achieve stylish perfection in Gaudy night.Cover
  • Hercule Poirot– Perhaps fastidious rather than fashionable, Hercule’s clothes like his little grey cells are sharp and immaculate.
  • Lestat-Anne Rice’s vamp is a noted snappy dresser and I am reliably informed that fangs=fashion.

Rather more authoritatively Booker short-listed novelist Linda Grant The clothes on their backs picked three outstanding “Paper dolls”:

  • Dorothea Brooke, the “finely formed” heroine of  george Eliot’s Middlemarch
  • Duchesse de Guermantes from Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu
  • Orlando, not the Bloom boy, but eponymous hero/heroine of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando: A biography

So all you stylistas who’d make it down the catwalk on your best-dressed literary list?