Challenged by the challenges

Well, it’s nearly half way through the year and I’m in a terrible mess with my challenges.

Cover of The KillsReading 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.

Cover of We Need New NamesSo 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.





New Year’s Resolutions (6)

Cover: Breakfast with LucianThe latest title off my list of seven books from The Guardian Best Books of 2013 was the most challenging so far. William Boyd thought that Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig was “fascinating, intimate… a revelation. Every question I had about Freud – from the aesthetic to the intrusively gossipy – was answered with great candour and judiciousness.”

Candour, yes. Judiciousness, I’m not so sure about. I really struggled with this book; not with reading it, but with reconciling my admiration for Freud’s paintings, my horror at his behaviour and my guilt at finding myself judging a great artist for the way he chose to live his life.

“Judge the art and not the artist,” I kept telling myself. None of us is perfect. He stayed friends with some of the women he treated so badly. Most of his acknowledged children loved him. He never pretended to be anything other than what he was.

But somehow none of it worked. I read it through to the end; it’s well written and I never considered not finishing it, but I was constantly gasping at Freud’s behaviour. Actually gasping out loud. Sometimes I had to put the book down to have a really good gasp. Next I’ll be reaching for the smelling salts.

Cover: Man with a Blue ScarfPerhaps it was what Greig chose to concentrate on. Freud’s relationships with women as lovers and models are covered in detail, while his friendship with the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery and the amazing works he produced using Bowery as a model are hardly alluded to at all. It may be that reproducing images featuring Bowery is problematical or too expensive. Or it could be that no-one except me is very interested in Bowery any more, whereas sex will always sell.

A few years ago I really enjoyed reading Man with a Blue Scarf, which was all about Freud’s practice, not his life. I think I’ll re-read that and get over myself.

What do you think about separating the art from the artist? Are there authors you won’t read because of what you know about their lives or their politics?

New Year’s Resolution (5)

Cover: Penelope Fitzgerald: A lifeMaking embarrassingly slow progress on my resolution to read seven books off the Guardian Best Books of 2013, I hit gold with Penelope Fitzgerald: A life.  John Lanchester, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel and Helen Simpson all rated it and they weren’t wrong.

Hermione Lee has written a model of a literary biography, which will come as no surprise to the well read, familiar with her books on Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton.

To my shame the only thing I knew about Lee was that one of her favourite possessions is a handbag that once belonged to Dodie Smith, given to her by Julian Barnes, who features in one of many amusing stories about Penelope Fitzgerald in the biography.  Lee could have lent her handbag to Fitzgerald, who sported a sponge bag at one of the Booker Prize dinners.

The biography is the perfect mix of telling detail, considered judgement and sympathetic but honest examination, all written in a style that makes the reader want to just keep on reading. Lee made Fitzgerald so alive to me that I now want to read everything she ever wrote. Also books by people she thought a lot of.

Then Lee is such a good writer I also want to read everything she has written. Although I might give the Edith Wharton biography a miss having been scarred for life by The House of Mirth – a worthy contender for The Most Misleading Title Ever Award. 

Do you have any favourite literary biographies? Because I need a few more titles to add to my lists.

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…

New Year’s Resolution (4)

The resolution to read seven books off The Guardian Best Books of 2013 list is proceeding well with no duds so Cover: Breakfast at Sothebysfar.

The latest is Breakfast at Sotheby’s, which was on William Boyd‘s list. Perhaps Boyd liked it so much because he features in the book, as the creator of an elaborate hoax that began on April Fool’s Day 1998 with the launch of a biography of artist Nat Tate. Except Nat Tate never existed outside William Boyd’s imagination. He even painted some works ostensibly by Nat Tate, one of which sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for £6,000.

Boyd thought that Breakfast at Sotheby’s is “an entire art education contained in under 350 pages”.  It’s witty, learned and unusual in that it considers how art and money mix. It’s also full of fascinating characters from the history of art. My favourite discovery is Henriette Ronner-Kipp, one of the most popular female artists of the nineteenth century, who specialised in cats doing cute things long before YouTube.

The author is Philip Hook, who is a director and senior paintings expert at Sotheby’s. Before that he worked for Christie’s, but what is truly impressive is that from from 1978 to 2003 he was on  Antiques Roadshow. There can be no higher recommendation, although he calls his performance on the show pedestrian and says “it was charitable of the BBC to put up with me for so long, 25 years as it turned out”.

I do love a list and Breakfast at Sotheby’s has some great ones: Middlebrow Artists (artists who are looked down upon because people like them too much), Individual Artists (the most expensive and sought-after modernist artists) and Fictional Artists. Two of my best fictional characters of any occupation are on the latter list – Gully Jimson from The Horse’s Mouth and Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited.

A good dip-into book, guaranteed to turn up something of interest on any page you pick.

New Year’s Resolution (3)

Cover of The Silent WifeGoing so well on my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to read seven books off The Guardian’s Best Books of 2013 list, I’ve finished my second book. It’s called The Silent Wife, by A. S. A. Harrison, who sadly died before the book’s world-wide release and great success.  John Lanchester called it funny and sharp, someone else said it was better than Gone Girl.

It is sharp, however I did not find it in the least funny and I did not find it better than Gone Girl. I did read it in three days so it must have had something going for it.  As I was reading it I kept thinking “this isn’t very good”, but then I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

One thing it does share with Gone Girl is the unlikeable nature of the two main characters, but I did want to know what happened to them. And the dog. Although the dog slipped from view somewhat towards the end.

It’s a hard book to talk about without giving all-important plot points away, but I think I’d recommend it. The style is pleasingly spare although depth of character is not a strong point. I did become intrigued with Adlerian psychoanalytic theory – to be added to the For Later list.

New Year’s Resolution (2)

In my haste to get going on my resolution to read seven books from the Guardian Best Books of 2013 list, I reserved all seven at once. First to arrive was The Great War: A Photographic Narrative. It’s a biggie, 500 pages with 380 black and white photographs chosen from the half a million in the archives of the Imperial War Museums.

I was gripped from the first image, a colour double page spread of a greatcoat worn by Kaiser Wilhelm II in Russia Cover of The Great War by Mark Holbornbefore the war, when he was a colonel-in-chief in the Russian army. “Its provenance is confirmed by the imperial ‘W’ on the inside lining beneath the collar and by the fact that one sleeve was shorter than the other. Photographers and tailors were required to disguise the Kaiser’s withered left arm, the result of an accident at birth”.  There is nothing like an historical item of clothing – elsewhere in this volume there is a photograph of the jacket Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated. Complete with bloodstains. You have to go to Vienna to see that though.

On the opposite page is a photograph of the Kings of Norway, Portugal, England, Greece, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and Bulgaria in 1910. All related by birth or marriage and all about to witness the end of the world as they knew it.

The book is as impeccably organised as might be expected, coming as it does from the Imperial War Museums. It follows an orderly and horrifying progression from the declarations of war to the Armistice and it is the incidental details that are the most affecting: a line of dogs, each pair drawing a machine gun on a small cart; men of the medical corps searching packs belonging to the dead looking for letters and personal effects that could be sent to relatives; women crying at the funeral of a munitionette. The very word munitionette upset me.  A minor concern, I know.

It was a sad and sobering experience looking at these photographs from 100 years ago, but rewarding too. We’ll all be hearing a lot about The Great War in the next four years – the images in this book probably give more of an idea of the suffering borne by those who experienced it than words ever will.

The real faces looking out down the years also reminded me of all the great literature that came out of the First World War, and after it. Unfortunately it involves yet another list, of things I might revisit if I ever finish the things on my 2014 resolutions list.

Do you have any memorable World War One works?

New Year’s Resolution (1)

Cover of Life after lifeAttempting to win a non-existent prize in a non-existent contest for the most ridiculously early New Year’s Resolution for 2014, I resolved to read 10 books from The Guardian’s List of Best Books of 2013 as selected by a number of well-known writers and critics.

I couldn’t find 10 books I really wanted to read so I am also in line to win the non-existent prize for earliest failure to keep a New Year’s Resolution.

Perhaps I could almost make it by counting the two I have already read.  Life after life by Kate Atkinson chosen by Ian Rankin, and The woman upstairs by Claire Messud, chosen by Lionel Shriver.

Does the list-maker influence the choice? Possibly.  Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: a life appeared on the lists of John Lanchester, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel and Helen Simpson. I’ve read all of these writers and hold them in high esteem. Same with Mark Haddon, but  although he’s a good writer it’s the subject matter of the The Great War, edited by Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts, that is both topical and compelling.

Blurbs can help – who could resist “a chilling psychological thriller portraying the disintegration of a relationship down to the deadliest point when murdering your husband suddenly makes perfect sense”. Not me, so I’ve added The silent wife by A. S. A. Harrison. It was on John Lanchester’s list and some say it’s better than Gone girlCover of Visitation Street

I chose Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda off Lionel Shriver’s  list because Ivy Pochoda is such a good name and because it  features a character who is “a Juilliard drop-out and barfly… forced to confront a past riddled with tragic sins of omission.”

I’ve also picked two off William Boyd‘s list: Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig and Breakfast at Sotheby’s by Philip Hook. Not just because they both have breakfast in the title, but because they are about the endlessly fascinating art world.

Richard House’s The Kills has been called a staggering work but it’s 1003 pages long – ‘a novel in four books’. The fact that I’m game for the attempt is what’s truly staggering. The Luminaries will be a walk in the park after this baby.

So, my list of books I will read from The Guardian Best Books of 2013 is as follows:

All safely reserved. First come, first read. I can’t wait to see where they’ll take me and I may even record how I get on.