Monday, 10 November 2014

We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth - John Lubbock

It's five months since I was last present on this blog. I have since popped by. Glanced briefly across at it before clicking elsewhere. Looked longingly to it from a distance and hurriedly moved away. The source of my malaise? Shame. Doleful, inexcusable shame.

I dislike neglect of any description. It smacks of a lack of control on the one hand and a lack of thought on the other. I am here guilty of both.

I knew there was a risk. Read my two previous posts and you know that I knew that I knew. And still I went ahead. Still I chose to continue irrespective. There are no excuses.

So I joined a reading group challenge. So I tried to set a deadline on finishing a book. It didn't work for me. It sent me backwards instead of urging me forwards. Can I say never mind? Put a line under it all? Onwards and upwards?

If it helps, I lost the group after the second check in. (Where did you go, group? Was it me??). And then, through my dismay at missing my deadline, I forced myself to finish MB. Even when the thrill of whales and their hunters had long gone. Which was fairly soon, if I'm honest.

But finish it, I did. Last week. Only four months short of the given deadline. It has been a busy summer. But enough of my excuses.

My reaction to the book: intermittently gripping, informative and exciting with long periods of incredibly intense descriptive passages. That frankly I could have done without. I was a tad dismayed that of 470 pages, Moby Dick only featured in the flesh for around 20 pages. At the very end. And then mainly in a frenzy. 

Still the pervading gloom which Melville hangs over the tale was enough to hint at the outcome. And I was so joyous at closing the book for the last time that I could not really bring myself to sympathise with the fate of any of the characters. And most especially the hunters.

I have now found for myself some (much) shorter stories. To break me back into a regular rhythm of reading and writing. And to help ease away the shame of my months of neglect. If anyone's still out there to notice...

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it's much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world! - Neil Gaiman

I'm not really one for updates on my progress through a book. I don't like the pressure. The interruptions. And I don't really like commenting on anything when I don't have a full overview of it.

Still, I'm going to make an exception with Moby Dick as I'm taking part in this readalong. Which I'm actually enjoying. Thinking about everyone reading the same book at the same time. Somewhere in the world. It's ever so motivating.

And anyway it's quite a hefty book. Meaning if I waited till the end you wouldn't be hearing from me for another month. Or maybe two.

I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by my initial experience of MD. It's been a fairly easy and enjoyable read thus far. Interesting. Quirky. Descriptive. Zippy.

The chapters are short which make the reading easy. You feel like you're moving along quite speedily. And this echoes the observations of our narrator, Ishmael, looking around, taking everything in.
His descriptions are stunning. "A gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly." "Humming to himself in his heathenish way." "I sat there in that now lonely room."

This suggests not only an observant man. But a sensitive, perceptive man. Open to be educated by the world around him instead of relying on his education to mould his view of the world.

And so begins my list of themes running through it: acceptance versus prejudice. Perception versus reality. Friendship and intimacy versus scorn and rejection. Tradition versus humanity.

Of course you can't escape the constant biblical references that litter this work. These may indeed be the point of the work? I will learn that in good time.

They begin with the names of the characters:
Ishmael = God hears. Abraham's son by Hagar. Sent away for disrespecting Isaac, the promised seed and Abraham's son by Sarah.
Peleg = Division. In the line from Shem to Abraham.
Bildad = One of Job's three companions. A descendant of Shuah, the son of Abraham by Keturah.
Ahab = King of the northern kingdom of Israel. Married to a pagan wife, Jezebel.
Elijah = One of the foremost prophets of Israel. 

The fiery sermon by Father Mapple Rose about Jonah and the whale then sets the tone: Jonah disobeys God. God’s reacts. "And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah."

The woes pronounced by MP will, I feel, be significant for the rest of the tale. But to what extent, I cannot say. 

All I can say is that it would appear that Melville is lamenting the state of mankind. "It's a wicked world in all meridians." "Bildad... had come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man's religion is one thing and this practical world quite another." "We good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things and not think ourselves so superior to other mortals, pagans and what not…. Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked and sadly need mending."

And so I continue. I've yet to meet Ahab. And methinks there are many adventures awaiting me as the Pequod sets sail...

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all - Abraham Lincoln

I've decided that I'm going to join a read-along. A whole new concept for me. And a whole new experience.

Being a somewhat solitary sort, I'm not sure how it'll all pan out. But I feel the need to jolt my reading into life after a few months of meandering. And stalling.

Roof Beam Reader has mounted the challenge to join him in reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Which is on my Classics Club Challenge. Something I've well and truly neglected over the past few months.

So I've signed up to join him. And quite a few others. To try and keep up. To start and finish MB between today and 15 July.

I know little about the book. Apart from the fact that it features a whale pursued by a man. And "Call me Ishmael". The opening words.

I will try to post my progress. Or lack of it. Regularly. Or just intermittently. I don't know how this will work. Or not.

But stay with me. The adventure begins here...

Monday, 26 May 2014

There is no friend as loyal as a book - Ernest Hemingway

And so to Sense & Sensibility. What can be said? That has not already been said a thousand times?

It was a good book on which to end my revisiting of Austen's novels. It is somehow so familiar, so endearing.

There is the steady Elinor to take us through. The long-suffering, stoic Elinor. So put-upon, so faithful. There is so much to admire in this respectful, diligent young lady. And yet few would admire her alongside the prettier, livelier Marianne.

She is abused by so many: a mother most puerile in her wants and actions; a sister almost indifferent to the world around her; the Jennings, the Ferrars; her brother, her lover, her lover's lover. And often the reader.

But I think we can all only rejoice at the vision of her happiness and emotional fulfilment at the close of the curtains.

This is a story we love to see on the screen. And although generally faithful, I often wonder at the need to embellish an already richly dramatic tale. Love and loss. Money and poverty. The intricacies and snobberies of class and social standing. Marianne's hysteria; Lucy's uncouthness. Willoughby's selfishness; the Jennings' crassness; the Dashwood's pomposity. Elinor and Colonel Brandon's selflessness. What more could you possibly ask for?

And so, that's all the Austen novels done. This time round. Read but not forgotten. There is a reason Jane Austen is hailed as one of the great novelists and held in such high esteem. And it's not just the tales she tells. Her inimitable way of seeing the world leaves a mark. Her quirky study of human nature. The beauty of her word use and composition. It all marks and stays with you like a warm mug of hot chocolate on an icy cold day. It is truly delightful and the ultimate feeling you would hope to get from the best hours of reading.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out - J. K. Rowling

Since my last post, many things have happened. Good and mediocre. But thankfully nothing bad. One of the more exciting things was watching a foal being born. But that's another story and another blog...

On the literary front, I have now finished Sense & Sensibility, and thus have completed my return journey through the Austen novels. And it has been truly delightful.

Even more exciting is that my blog has reached and passed 10,000 page views. Yey!

But back to Austen. And in particular, Mansfield Park. Following such an enjoyable read, I allowed myself to indulge in some light refreshment and took out the DVD interpretations. On a whim. And against my better judgement.

Now I won't dwell on this too much as I inflicted both productions on myself. And in fairness, although Billie Piper didn't strike me as Fanny Price material, at least the ITV version attempted to respect the novel. Dialogue came from the pages of Austen's work, even if it was not attributed to the characters she penned it from. And the overall story was conveyed. In general.

The 1999 film of the same name conveys the overall story even more generally. And from quite a distance may vaguely be associated with Austen's text. If you look really hard.

Call me a purist but I expect to see the book if I watch a film of the same name. Or at least elements of the book. And certainly the main protagonists. Fanny Price was conspicuously absent from the film. Replaced by a feisty young writer who was uncannily like Ms Austen herself in character...

But I will say no more. Each to their own. And this was not close to mine. It will be my endeavour to one day pen a script of my own of Mansfield Park. Just for the pure delight. And to see just how difficult it really is.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me - C.S. Lewis

It was a beautiful day today, but I couldn't get myself outside before finishing Mansfield Park. It was a long read but an excellent one.

It surprises me somehow. I think I may have been brainwashed over the years into believing Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility to be the best of Austen's works. I have thus been pleasantly surprised re-reading both MP and Persuasion.

To be sure, MP is far more intense than any of Austen's other works. And indeed lacks the interspersing of humour that make JA such an easy read. The only hint of the playful author comes through at the end, when she brings the story to a speedy conclusion to the satisfaction of all her favoured characters, ensuring another one of her eternal happy endings.

Yet in its examination of feelings and class and of each one's place in the world, maybe MP is the closest of JA's works to real life: People scheming to marry well. Playing with the feelings of others. Each one's fate dependent on their wealth. Or lack of it. As such, the story hardly lends itself to humour. 

As is so well seen in the case of Fanny Price. MP follows the life and loves of FP. Living in a world and family she has not been born into. Incessantly apologetic and woefully conscious of her indebtedness to the Bertrams. Awkward and uncomfortable amongst her cousins. Cowering under the constant bullying of Mrs Norris. Wilting under scrutiny.

All of which the reader feels particularly, party as they are to each of FP's feelings. Insightful and overwhelming as they are.

Fanny's sensitivity, her uncommon humility and her particularly feeble health are offset by her kindness, discretion and discernment. And stand in stark contrast to the hardness of her cousins and their friends. Their selfishness. Their vain pursuit of pleasures. Their complete disregard for the feelings of others and their duty to family.
Mansfield Park is a strangely intense tale of hopes and dreams, both frivolous and serious. Almost a Cinderella-like tale, where the outer beauty of the privileged daughters gives way to the inner beauty of the book's steadfast, principled yet insecure heroine.

I think that Fanny may not be the most loved of Austen's chief protagonists. But I cannot dislike her. Indeed I love to admire the romance that sees a character with so little to recommend her, remain the heroine to the end. It gives me hope...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book - Jane Smiley

I continue to be a very slow reader. And as I have lacked the imagination of late to invent other reasons to write, I have needed to finish another book before returning here. Although I have been elsewhere.
But here I am. A month after my last post. Not very productive methinks. How do people read two or three books a week? I don't care to be pressured by the activity of others. All the same...
Still I am happy to share my thoughts on Jane Austen's Persuasion. Which I have just now finished. For all my thoughts are happy ones. In spite of the fact that this was the book of Austen's that I least wanted to read. The least appealing. The most grim. In my memory, at least. And yet I found it one of the most satisfying. On so many levels.
The tale of Anne Elliot and her lost love, Captain Frederick Wentworth, is perhaps not as invigorating as JA's other novels. And littered with accidents, death and deception, it is also perhaps not the lightest and brightest of her stories.
Yet for me Anne Elliot is one of JA's most endearing characters. The most deeply developed, least frivolous. She is reflective, principled. Gentle. Discerning. And well read. She is discreet and put upon. Despised and loved. And she neither bursts forth youth nor beauty. Thus she is charming through her very nature, which is always to me the best of charms.
Captain Wentworth for his part is the devoted, dejected lover. Angry and spurned. Yet unable to stay far from his love any longer. His letter admitting his feelings and pronouncing his intentions is stunning. In that moment, he beats any of JA's lovers for me. So manly, so emotive. Sooooo romantic.
The characters are perhaps not as lively, not as immediately appealing as say an Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, an Emma and Mr Knightley. But their feelings, love and attachment seem deeper, more passionate, more real for their durability. The romance intensified for its duration. And therefore the whole effect is more. Just more.

I was eager to finish Persuasion, and equally sad to arrive at the end. Always the sign of a good read for me. And so I will pursue Austen to the finish. Mansfield Park to be followed by Sense and Sensibility. I will try to pop by more frequently in between reads with some intelligible musings. But make no promises. On either regard...

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sleep is good, he said, And books are better - George R R Martin

Since starting my new job, I've had little time to sit and relax online. Or to do anything much else either, if I'm honest. Still, reviews by my fellow bloggers of their exploits during 2013 have not escaped my notice. Much to my chagrin.

My proud boast of having read 30 or so books last year now leaves me somewhat red-faced. I think I must be a laughing stock in the book blogging world where everyone seems to manage at least 80 or so books in 12 months. At least. And that, it would seem, is not always a good year. I can only be left wondering how they do it. Any hints, advice or explanations would be welcome.

In the meantime, I press on with Jane Austen. My latest re-read has been Northanger Abbey. Never one of my favourites. An opinion which remains unchanged.

It's a sweet enough tale. But not a page-turner for me. Possibly because I have little sympathy with the heroine, Catherine Morland. She's a tad wet for my liking. Her mind is weak, her judgment obtuse. JA usually can be relied on for much better.

Still, I find the author's voice as entertaining as ever. Note her remarks on dressing to impress. "Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction", she warns, because men remain insensible to the new clothes women take so much time over in order to impress them. She continues: "It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire... woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter".

With regard to the mortification Catherine feels in her inability to understand a conversation with the Tilneys, the author chides: "(It was) a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well she can".

Is that a tad harsh, I wonder? I'm not altogether sure. But they may be arguments I adopt in the future. To explain away anything. And everything. I have the misfortune of knowing something...

Friday, 3 January 2014

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment - Mary Ann Shaffer

Despite my recent reservations, I continue to indulgence myself. And have just finished Pride & Prejudice. Accompanied by a whole lot of Galaxy chocolate. Although the less said about that, the better.

P&P was totally delightful. As was to be expected. And all the more so as it comforted me through a dreadful 1 January 2014 of gales and torrential rain. Charming, romantic, funny. And featuring Mr Darcy. All in one. Who could ask for anything more?

Austen's musings on love and lovers cannot be anything less than delightful. With Charlotte's apparent cynicism, Mary's stoic pronunciations and Lizzie's carefree - and at times careless - commentaries. It has everything to please.

Silly characters abound, for sure, in both female and male form. And in all levels of society. But this gives all the more grace and elegance to the main characters and their stories.

I admit that I do tend to find Jane and Mr Bingley's tales a tad insipid. Still the fiery misunderstandings and prideful foot-stamping of Lizzie and Mr Darcy more than compensate. Two characters ultimately so alike. Both big fish in their own spheres. Both outspoken and admired. Both despising inferior minds and inferior behaviour.

The collision of these two worlds, and the resulting indiscretions, provide great entertainment and admirable romance. 

Re-reading it after so many years, I realised how faithful was/is the BBC's rendering of the novel. Apart from the licence taken to have Mr Darcy dive into a lake after his long ride home from London. But who am I to quibble on such minor additions. Inspired as they are.

The BBC can usually be relied on to make both faithful and truly entertaining interpretations of most writings. However, I must inscribe here my great disliking of its recent production of Emma. I hasten to add that my love for the novel renders me a tad unyielding in such matters. And that having seen most of the productions in her name, I am not best enamoured by any of them. There would seem to be a wilful desire to misrepresent her (as I read her). Instead of a self-important, cheeky but loving daughter, she is portrayed as a selfish, almost spiteful and emotionally-stunted, manipulative girl, mocking and belittling her father amongst others.

No, no, no. Only the 1996 version starring Kate Beckinsale comes close to holding a balance of the contradictions that are Emma. Her silliness and sincerity. Self-importance and attention to duty. Propriety and indiscretions. The scenes of her reveries help us to laugh both at and with her. And thus we have enough sympathy to like her in the end, and rejoice with her in her happiness.

I don't say it's a perfect version, by any means. But it is the only one I can tolerate. Intolerant as I am.  :0(

Amidst the novels and screen versions of them, I'm beginning to feel trapped in JA. Not unpleasant in itself. But I do wonder if I should not move on to another author. It's not like there aren't others (and lists of them) waiting to be read by me. Still why change a winning formula. I'm finishing books again. What to do, what to do...