O.K. it’s confession time. I have been an abject failure at meeting my reading challenges for 2014.
A Year in Reading started out well; January, February and March have ticks beside them. But then things went to pieces. By April I was trying to make Mary Poppins do double duty – as a book that has been made into a movie (already checked off in March) and a re-read from childhood. Cheating on my reading challenges – that’s what it came to.
There were some books I did read, but not in the month assigned to them:
- A book from another country – Sydney by Delia Falconer. (I think Australia counts as another country).
- An award winner – Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (actually it’s only been nominated for the Costa so far, but if there is any justice in the world it will win every literary prize going in 2015.) Cheating again – it’s a slippery slope.
Reading Bingo was marginally better, but again with the cheating.
- A book with a blue cover – Middlemarch by George Eliot. Double cheat. Also June A Year in Reading – read that classic you have never read.
- A book that is more than ten years old – Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Double cheat – January A Year in Reading – a book that was published in the year you were born.
- A book that became a movie – Mary Poppins. Actually a triple cheat. There are no depths to which I will not stoop.
What challenges will I fail in 2015 I wonder? Should I make not reading Ulysses an annual non-event?
James Joyce is an author I regard with equal amounts of admiration and guilt. Admiration? His statue in Dublin and the jaunty angle of his cigarette holder in photographs. And I love a man (or a woman) with an eye-patch.
Guilt? Ulysses languishing on my list of books I know I should have read but haven’t. Way back in March I added it to my list of challenges for the year, smug because I could use it for both Reading Bingo (Read a forgotten classic) and A Year in Reading (In June read that classic you have never read). I know calling it a forgotten classic is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve done my best to forget my dismal failure to read it in the sixth form. The words ‘the sixth form’ indicate how long ago it was.
Now it’s June 16th, possibly the most famous date in literature, the date when all the action in Ulysses takes place. Some say June 16th 1904 was the day Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle, had their first ‘romantic liaison’. For the last 50 years it’s been commemorated as Bloomsday.
In Dublin those who have read the book (and those who haven’t) walk the route Leopold Bloom walked. They dress up, eat up, read the book to themselves and others, attend learned lectures on the book, view art and listen to music inspired by the book and, most of all, they drink. It is Dublin after all.
Nothing quite so exciting for me. Drink on a Monday and the only way is down for the rest of the week. I draw the line at kidneys for breakfast. I could give the cat a bowl of milk in a Bloomsian way but as Ulysses sits accusingly on my bedside table the only way to commemorate Bloomsday is to read a decent number of pages .
“Why don’t you write books people read?” disloyal old Nora Barnacle asked Joyce. Will Ulysses be a book this person will read? All the way through to the very end? Perhaps.
Well, it’s nearly half way through the year and I’m in a terrible mess with my challenges.
Reading seven books off the Guardian’s List of Best Books of 2013 went swimmingly until I reached number seven: The Kills. It’s 1002 pages long. What was I thinking?
Reading Bingo is also shaping up to be a bit of a bust – I’ve got five squares crossed off my 25 square grid. And it’s May!
I actually cheated and chose Mary Poppins for both Reading Bingo – “A book that became a movie” and A Year in Reading – “In March read a book that has been made into a movie”. Tragic, but needs must. Now I feel the need to repeat (yes, hysteria is creeping in here) – it’s May and I did not re-read a favourite book from childhood in April. Would Mary Poppins do for that as well?
The only challenge I’m doing O.K. on is reading the 2013 Man Booker shortlist. One of my book clubs thought this would be a good idea so we could then decide if The Luminaries deserved to win.
So far we’ve read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Harvest by Jim Crace. Both books I never would have picked up left to my own narrow devices so perhaps challenges are good for something other than driving me crazy. Both very good books in different ways – how do the Man Booker judges ever decide which is best? Next up is The Testament of Mary – this was the shortest book on the list so of course it had to be the only one I’d already read.
If I was a Man Booker judge what would I think? Actually I’d think “what was I thinking when I took this on?”. I’d have to put aside my opinion that Colm Tóibín is a stone-cold genius because Jim Crace probably is too if Harvest is anything to go by. I’d have to fight my impulse to give the prize to NoViolet Bulawayo for having the best pen-name in the world. Crace has said that Harvest will be his last book. We Need New Names was Bulawayo’s first. The Luminaries is 832 pages long, The Testament of Mary 81. How to compare?
Actually I’ve just realised We Need New Names crosses off a sixth square for Reading Bingo – “A book set on a different continent”. Things are looking up.
Another 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.
Reading 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.
Because I haven’t got enough reading to be going on with this year, what with a For Later list of only 410 titles and 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. I’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…