Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: June

“The Experience of Fatherhood”

I chose Silas Marner as my Read The Year pick, and I was a little worried that I might have made a tenuous link as an excuse to cross another Eliot novel off the TBR list. While Eliot is making a point about the ways in which our values affect our conduct, and we reap what we sow, she uses the contrasting conduct of Eppie’s biological and adoptive fathers to do so. Even now, there are people who feel that there’s something shameful about raising another man’s children, but Eliot offers a touching portrait of the bonds that can form with the family we choose, which still resonates today. I think this is one of the more accessible of Eliot’s novels, and a good starting point for anyone who is intimidated by her reputation.

Related Reading

I also read The Secret Garden this month. I’d read it as a child, but found it hard to relate to, and much preferred Burnett’s The Little Princess. Since it’s the theme for The Shawl Society this year I decided it was time to revisit it. Perhaps it was the 8 or so years living in Yorkshire, which meant I came back to this with a fondness for characters like Ben Weatherstaff, but I found that I couldn’t put it down, and the reunion of Colin and his father reduced me to tears.

Other Reading

Fiction

As planned I read Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour novel. It was gripping, and made me a little more sympathetic toward Jane than I had felt previously (Katherine of Aragon is still my favourite #truequeen). The conclusions about her death, which I won’t spoil, are interesting, and highlight the difference modern medicine has made to a woman’s chances of surviving childbirth. I have a ticket for Weir’s talk at Edinburgh Book Festival this summer, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about her research for this novel. I also finished The Tamuli, and, still in the grip of nostalgia, read my way through The Malloreon. Since I’m not quite ready to leave Garion and friends, I’ve tracked down second-hand copies of The Belgariad, and am waiting on their arrival to start another fantasy binge. Fond as I am of Sparhawk and his fellow adventurers (my first introduction to David Eddings’ work), I do think the cosmology is better thought out in the Garion books, and they’re a masterclass in how to elevate stereotypes like ‘the knight’ or ‘the rogue’ into complex characters.

Non-Fiction

Most of my non-fiction this month was on Audible – I stuck with the 15th and 16th centuries with John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes, and Giles Tremlett’s Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen. The latter is a wonderful companion to the author’s earlier work on Katherine of Aragon, and would work as an interesting preface to Game of Queens, which I read last month. I then embarked on Max Adams’ The King in the North – one of my birthday paperbacks. This was a recommendation Warren Ellis made in his newsletter ages ago, and it’s every bit as good as he suggested, with a density to the prose which most ‘popular’ history books lack. I’m finding I need to read small snatches and absorb, hence why I’m re-reading old fantasy alongside it.

Running Total

Books Read: 65

Currently Reading: 4

Next Month

The initial plan is to finish The King in the North and read my way through The Belgariad. I’m taking a little break from history on Audible to catch up on some podcasts, and the Tiny Tyrant is now on school holidays, so I’m resigned to July being a light month as regards reading.

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Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: May

“Closer to Nature”

In May I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. I greatly enjoyed his Landmarks (a wonderful marriage of words and nature) last year, and the Tiny Tyrant and I love to read The Lost Words, so he seemed like the obvious author to turn to for this prompt. Plus I already had a copy of The Old Ways on the TBR shelf.

I found this book harder to get stuck into, and my attention and interest wasn’t consistent. While I’ve lived near water for most of my life, I’m not a fan of boats (I can barely keep my balance on dry land), so the various ‘sea paths’ held little appeal. On the other hand, the chapter on walking in Palestine, and then the stretch of the Camino de Santiago (a walk that’s been a lifelong ambition of mine), were gripping. Which does suggest that this book probably holds a chapter for everyone. What I did notice about reading it, was that The Old Ways made me more aware of my surroundings on the ‘everyday’ commutes of my neighbourhood; especially those in-between spaces that have been colonised by wildflowers/weeds and wildlife.

Related Reading

A quick glance at Goodreads reveals that none of my other reads in May were related to nature, which is a shame as I’d planned to finally read Nan Shepard’s The Living Mountain. What is interesting, given how The Old Ways highlights the eerieness inherent in walking paths which have been marked for centuries, is that I read a number of Shirley Jackson’s short stories alongside this book. I’m saving one or more of her novels for October’s prompt, but, despite her reputation among horror authors of note, I found the short stories to be more eerie and uncanny than anything else.

Other Reading

Fiction

I did read some fiction, beyond short stories, in May, as a wave of nostalgia sent me back to David Edding’s wonderful Elenium series. Eddings’ fantasy always seems, to me, rather formulaic in the ‘band of heroes goes to fetch macguffin and save world’ plot that he managed to repeat over 4 different series, but he writes memorable characters, and there’s a rich vein of humour to his writing, that makes these novels so readable. It felt like catching up with old friends, and I’m slowly working my way through the Tamuli as well at those times when I need an easy read. Off the back of the Netflix series (which I never actually finished watching), I also read The Alienist and it’s sequel. Crime isn’t usually my genre, but the detailed historical setting and wonderful fin-de-siècle feminist Miss Sara Howard made this a compelling read.

Non-fiction

My history obssession continued both in written and audible form. Stand-outs were Sarah Gristwood’s Game of Queens, which I’ve been meaning to read since Alison Weir name-checked it at her Edinburgh Book Festival talk last year, and the audio version of John Julius Norwich’s history of the papacy (I was so sorry to hear that he passed away last week; I greatly admired the scope of his interests). The former introduced me to a few 16th C women who had hitherto only been names to me, and I look forward to getting to know them a little better. The latter was a whistlestop tour, which has given me some context for how the papacy made it to its current state. It’s only a shame that it stopped at Benedict XVI, having been written before his abdication.

Running Total

Books Read: 50

Currently Reading: 4

Next Month

June’s theme is the experience of fatherhood, which I’m using as an excuse to read Silas Marner. I expect that other anticipated reads, Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, and The Secret Garden, will throw up other perspectives on fatherhood.

Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: March

“Unknown Woman”

Since I spent most of the month finishing February’s novel, for March I settled on The Diary of Lady Murasaki, a short book with journal and letter extracts written by the woman known as Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese author and courtier, about her time in the service of Empress Shōshi, at the height of the famous Heian period. The main events documented in the diary are the birth of Prince Atsuhira, and the celebrations which followed. For comparison, Appendix 2 offers translations of records of these events made by male authors, and I was struck by the attention that Murasaki shows to the people involved in comparison to those authors. She details the reactions, interactions, and outfits of a wide range of participants, and builds a textured picture of the events that unfold, her gaze at times critical, at others empathetic. It’s a wonderful window into history, and astonishing to think, as the translator notes in the introduction, that this elegant, refined world existed at a time roughly 50 years prior to the Norman conquest. At the time she wrote this ‘diary’ Murasaki was already well known as the author of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), considered to be one of the first Japanese novels, and still revered as one of its greatest cultural works. Certainly one I’ll be adding to the TBR list.

Related Reading

Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life came to my attention via a Brain Pickings newsletter. A book examining the ways in which women construct their lives seemed like a good companion to the Diary, which moves between formal comment on public events, and inward-looking musing on what is possible for women. Composing a Life draws from the stories of five women (including the author), moving between the anecdotal, and published research. The main argument is that women have a long history of composing their lives through compromise and negotiation between personal ambition and desire, and societal pressures and responsibilities, and that there is potential in embracing this model for both men and women, rather than competitive ‘equality’. We’ll be in April before I finish this one, but I can already tell that I’ll be coming back to it.

Other Reading

Fictional Non-Fiction

Do D&D manuals class as fiction or non-fiction? They are books that offer the tools to tell a story, which suggests non-fiction, yet role-playing relies on suspension of disbelief, just as fiction. No doubt smarter people than I have answered this question. All I know is that I find them very enjoyable to read, both as a writer and gamer. This month I perused Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (an extension of the Player’s Handbook), and The Tomb of Annihilation (an adventure module set in the jungles of Chult). For me the latter wasn’t on a par with Storm King’s Thunder or The Curse of Strahd, but there were some fun ideas there (for a taste of ToA check out the 2017 Acquisitions Inc live shows on YouTube).

Non-Fiction

I’ve been reading Folk Fashion in a slow and thoughtful manner, as it raised questions for me around my own choices and processes of making. Broadly speaking, her thesis is that there is nothing inherently sustainable about making our own clothes if we engage with the process in the same mindset that we engage with fast fashion. She also explores the circumstances under which we feel permitted to alter or unmake existing designs and garments, and the ways in which we might encourage ourselves, and others, to do so. While this is a well-referenced, academic work, it is very readable, and I feel that I will be unpacking her insights and reflecting on my making for a while to come.

Running Total

Books Read: 20

Currently Reading: 5

Next Month

The next Read The Year prompt is to “Grab a book that will help you to explore your creativity” so I shall be working through Keri Smith’s The Imaginary World of… in April.

Books · Reading Challenge

Read The Year: February

“Obsessive Love”

Full disclosure: I have yet to finish Anna Karenina. This should not be taken as a criticism – it’s a result of my starting late, reading less than usual, and the style of the novel, which encourages a slow reading pace and close attention.

I knew very little about the novel going in: I knew it involved an affair between Anna and Vronsky, and was an examination of marriage and love, but there is also a secondary plot, interrelated with the first, about Levin, a friend of Anna’s brother, and Kitty, related to Anna by marriage (and a former flirtation of Vronsky’s) which examines the theme from a different angle.img_8727

Having read War and Peace a few years back, I remembered that Tolstoy can be quite wordy, but I had forgotten his talent for delineating characters. In some respects his knack resembles that of Elizabeth Gaskell (see last month’s post), in showing faults, and foibles, as well as the good, but his eye for character errs more toward the satirical than the sympathetic.

I’m about halfway through, and while I’m aware that things don’t end well for Anna, I’m allowing myself to hope a little for Levin and Kitty.

Related Reading

Madame Bovary seemed like a suitable accompaniment to Anna Karenina, but my slow pace meant I never got to it. However, Napoleon the Great, which I listened to on Audible, tied in more than I expected. The Napoleonic era was much earlier than Anna Karenina , which is set in the 1870s, but it was a time that fundamentally reshaped Europe, and the reforms which resulted from Alexander’s wars with Napoleon underpin the concerns of Tolstoy’s characters. In its own right Napoleon the Great is a fantastic book, which gave me a new perspective on both the man and his actions.

Other Reading

I’ve not read many adult books this month, partly because it’s been a short month, partly because the books I was concentrating on are so long.

Fiction

I borrowed some Hulk comics through my Amazon Prime membership. I’ve never bothered to buy any of the Planet Hulk tie-ins, but I wanted to check them out because Thor: Ragnarok used some of the Hulk material. They’re interesting from that perspective, but I’m glad I didn’t buy them, as I don’t think I’d read them again.

Non-Fiction

Back in January, I ordered a book about Portuguese calçada (the mosaic-style, cobbled paving that is widely used in Portuguese cities). Calçada Portuguesa is a photograph book, but does briefly cover the history of calçada (which is of more recent provenance than I imagined, given its ubiquity in Portugal), and shows the spread the art form to former Portuguese territories worldwide. It’s also trilingual: Portuguese, English, and Chinese (I assume they mean Mandarin), which is a nice touch.

Running Total

Books Read: 12

Currently Reading: 8

Upcoming

Since I still have half of Anna Karenina to read, my March book needs to be short. The theme is ‘Read a book about a woman you hadn’t previously heard of’. I was planning to read a biography of Christine de Pizan, but have settled on the shorter The Diary of Lady Murasaki.

Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: January

“New Beginnings”

North and South: I chose Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the Industrial north for my first read. Margaret Hale and her family move from the rural south to Milton, a fictional town of cotton mills and nouveau riche mill owners. Gaskell uses these outsiders to show how completely divorced the lives of owners and employees are, and put forward the notion that the owners have a responsibility to the men they employ. Add in a Pride-and-Prejudice-esque love story, and a sub-plot with a mutineer family member to add complications, and this is a cracking read. While there is perhaps a touch more moralising than a modern reader may want, Gaskell is a keen observer of humanity, and sketches her characters with sympathy and honesty, allowing us to laugh at their foibles without despising them.

Related Books

Hard Times: Dickens’ Industrial novel suffered a little in comparison by being read immediately after North and South. I tend to roll my eyes when people start praising Dickens, because I don’t rate his writing ability very highly. His characters are rarely more than stereotypes, and his taste for melodrama is tedious. But his novels are very readable, and this one was no exception. Dickens focusses on the effect of environmental pressures on the formation of the individual, and in some ways the novel is a plea for the importance of leisure, entertainment, fictions, and imagination for a fulfilling life.

I also began both Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and Jenny Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell. I found both hard work (though the biography is interesting), and will probably set them aside until I’ve finished my February challenge book.

Other Reading

Fiction

Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children: I picked up this trilogy on a 3 for 2 offer and read it over the course of a weekend. The first novel has a Gothic feel, with its claustrophobic island setting, and uncertainty over what is real. The subsequent books have a more action feel to them and lose something as a result. The time travel and magical aspects expose plot holes if closely examined, and the ‘found photos’ are overused after the first novel, but this is a fun, readable series for those times when you need an undemanding read.

Non-Fiction

Dyeing to Spin & Knit: Colour is my primary draw when buying yarn, and I’ve been wanting to learn a little more about the processes used by independent dyers, and how these interact with the fibres being dyed. Felicia Lo’s book includes an overview of colour theory, instructions on different dyeing methods, and even advice on how to work with dyed spinning fibre and yarn to achieve different colour effects. It’s a great primer, and will be a valuable resource should I decide to try my hand at dyeing.

Running Total

Books read: 8

Currently reading: 5

Upcoming

Read the Year invites me to “get stuck into a story of obsessive love” in February, so I’m thinking it’s time to read Anna Karenina.

Books · Reading Challenge

A New Challenge

My past reading challenges have mainly served to instil good habits: to read more new books rather than re-reading old ones, and to make the effort to seek out varied voices. So far, so successful. However, as I reached the end of 2017, I realised that because my challenge had been unstructured – deliberately, so that I wasn’t bound to a list of ‘diverse reads’ curated by someone else, and had to do some work myself – it had become a source of stress. In hindsight I should have set the goal of reading a few books a month toward my challenge, and trusted that, as I discovered new authors, the actual number read would exceed my target.

When I began thinking about 2018, I knew that I wanted to read far more Victorian novels (my enduring love) than I’d managed to fit into 2017. I toyed with the the idea of a year of reading Victorian women: the novels I’d yet to tackle by the more famous authors, and a chance to unearth some of the lesser known (though popular in their time) authors. I was also quite taken with the idea of picking a theme, and reading around it: a novel or two and some secondary reading, but at the leisurely pace an English degree never quite allows.

I was still mulling over how to meld my two ideas when the New Year arrived, and I began Gaskell’s North and South anyway, confident that it would fit whatever challenge I ended up with. Then: serendipity. I noticed Penguin’s Read The Year challenge on Instagram, and January’s prompt fit North and South perfectly. I realised that many of the other prompts would work with Victorian authors, or allow me to read other Classics on my TBR lists. I had found a structure, and from the one book that fit the prompt I could devise secondary reading where interested. Or not, if I decided that the book was a dud.

I’ve begun plotting what I’ll read for the remaining prompts, drawing where I can on books I already own or know I can source from the library. I then plan to write a short review of each book, and some information on my other reading around it, for the blog each month – mostly in the interests of accountability.

I’ve also set myself a goal on Goodreads again this year. I was pleased to beat my target of 104 (2 books a week) last year, but, as I’ve mentioned before, I think I’ve found my level at just over 100 books a year, and circumstances won’t be different enough to warrant stretching myself in 2018.

So there you have my plan. Do let me know if you’re doing Penguin’s Read The Year Challenge (or any others) as it would be interesting to compare notes on what we hope to read.

Expect the first update at the end of the month.