Saturday, 28 November 2009

100+ Reading Challenge

Another challenge: The 100+ Reading Challenge, hosted by J. Kaye is again, rather self explanatory - try and reading 100 books or more in 2010. Since it's something I'm going to try and do anyway, (for my own small and informal reading challenge over at Elftown - poor name I know, but a great community for fantasy & sci-fi lovers) I thought I'd sign up. Extra motivation and all that jazz. I'm trying to manage it this year, too - so far I've read 75 books. It'll be tight, but I'm hoping I can plough through quite a few after term ends.

1. Thomas Paine; Common Sense
2. Longus; Daphnis and Chloe
3. Walpole; The Castle of Otranto
4. Mackenzie; The Man of Feeling
5. Racine; Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah
6. Jung; Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster
7. David Malouf; Remembering Babylon
8. Patrick Gardiner; Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction
9. Kierkegaard; Fear and Trembling
10. Freud; The Interpretation of Dreams
11. Klaus Theweleit; Object-Choice (All You Need is Love...)
12. Greek Lyric Poetry
13. Buchan; The Thirty-Nine Steps
14. Hurlburt & Schwitzgebel; Describing Inner Experience?
15. Aristophanes; Lysistrata and Other Plays
16. Orwell; Why I Write
17. Radcliffe; The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne
18. Tacitus; The Agricola and The Germanicus
19. Juvenal; The Sixteen Satires
20. Voltaire; Letters on England
21. Tom Holland; The Vampyre
22. Anonymous; The Book With No Name
23. Verne; Journey to the Centre of the Earth
24. Kipling; The Jungle Book
25. Robert Louis Stevenson; Treasure Island
26. Stephen Crane; The Red Badge of Courage
27. Anthony Hope; The Prisoner of Zenda
28. Christopher Tyerman; The Crusade: A Very Short Introduction
29. Scarlett Thomas; The End of Mr. Y
30. Samuel Butler; Erewhon
31. Pratchett; Thief of Time
32. Pratchett; Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
33. Philip Reeve; Infernal Devices
34. Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Pianist
35. Prachett; The Wee Free Men
36. Pratchett; A Hat Full of Sky
37. Pratchett; Wintersmith
38. Kundera; Immortality
39. Alcott; Little Women
40. Charlotte Bronte; Jane Eyre
41. Douglas Adams; The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
42. Douglas Adams; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
43. Douglas Adams; Life, The Universe, and Everything

New Author Challenge 2010

The New Author challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism is rather self-explanatory, really. The challenge is to read books by authors you haven't read anything by before. Hopefully this will encourage me to get round to reading some of the classical authors I've been avoiding - Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, etc.

I set my goal at 50 new authors since that seemed reasonably and manageable. We'll see how it goes. I love challenges, but I don't want to take on too much, I have a habit of always biting off more than I can chew, which is great because it means I push myself to new levels, and bad because it means I'm often disappointed by not being able to meet my ludicrous expectations. But I seem to work best/be most productive when I'm stressed so...

1. Thomas Paine; Common Sense
2. Longus; Daphnis and Chloe
3. Walpole; The Castle of Otranto
4. Mackenzie; The Man of Feeling
5. David Malouf; Remembering Babylon
6. Klaus Theweleit; Object-Choice (All You Need is Love...)
7. Buchan; The Thirty-Nine Steps
8. Hurlburt & Schwitzgebel; Describing Inner Experience?
9. Radcliffe; The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne
10. Tactius; The Agricola and The Germanicus
11. Juvenal; The Sixteen Satires
12. Voltaire; Letters on England
13. Tom Holland; The Vampyre
14. Kipling; The Jungle Book
15. Stephen Crane; The Red Badge of Courage
16. Anthony Hope; The Prisoner of Zenda
17.Scarlett Thomas; The End of Mr. Y
18. Samuel Butler; Erewhon
19. Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Pianist
20. Kundera; Immortality
21. Alcott; Little Women
22. Charlotte Bronte; Jane Eyre
23. Douglas Adams; The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Pushkin; The Queen of Spades and Other Stories

The 'Other Stories' being The Negro of Peter the Great, Dubrovsky, & The Captain's Daughter. I actually started reading this book in September, but then I had to put it down for a week or so at the start of the university term. For some reason I just didn't get round to picking it up again until this week. Probably because I keep buying new books and like the small child that I am, I want to play with the new shiny toys.

The first two stories (The Negro of Peter the Great & Dubrovsky) were, for me, an exercise in frustration - in a good way. Pushkin sets the scene, builds the plot, gives depth to his characters, and then- the end. Unfinished. If you're not expecting that, it's frustrating because your interesting in the characters and plot has been built up so well - you want to know what happens next, how conflicts will resolve, etc. I knew The Negro of Peter the Great was unfinished, but I didn't realise Dubrovsky was, too. Perhaps it would have been better if they'd put Dubrovsky at the end of the book, to split up the frustration of the unfinished stories. But unless you have a pet peeve about unfinished stories, they're still worth reading.

The Queen of Spades - the story which made me pick the book up in the first place - is a short, (and thankfully complete) cunning little story with a hint of the gothic and the chiller. It's short, simple, and sweet. Like most good short "ghost" stories, it doesn't give you every detail, nor explain every point, so it leaves you thinking about it well after the story is over, wondering (in a non-frustrating way) why certain things happened.

The last story, The Captain's Daughter interested me a lot more than I thought it would, once the plot really got going. Again, it has a few small elements of the gothic that work really well in setting the mood of the story, and the unpredictable characters keep the suspense and tension high when they're on the scene, and the main character develops throughout the story very well and realistically.

I've ended up reading quite a lot of Russian literature so far this year (I'm reading another Russian novel right now), but I still have very little knowledge of the context in which they were written - I know Pushkin was censored and that I've therefore probably missed some of the political undertones of his stories (except for the obvious ones in Dubrovksy and The Captain's Daughter). There are probably some Russian Literature experts out there crying at my lack of deeper understanding of the texts, but they read well and are enjoyable even for those who, like me, don't know much/anything about Pushkin and his life and times. If you're interested in reading some Russian literature, but don't know where to start, and are put off by the length of War and Peace, or the philosophy of Crime and Punishment, Pushkin is a good place to start.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Sophocles; Electra and Other Plays

The 'Other Plays' being Ajax, Women of Trachis, and Philoctetes. I preferred The Women of Trachis and Philoctetes over Ajax and Electra - I find it hard to see Ajax as a tragic hero because he had such murderous intents, of which he never repents - one feels far more for his brother Teucer and Odysseus than for Ajax himself. My problem with Electra is that I like Clytemnestra. Obviously, in this version she is portrayed as completely without virtue to allow the audience to sympathise with Electra. But I don't have the ability of the Ancient Greeks to set aside everything I know about a character and only focus on what I am told in the partcular version I am reading/viewing. And modern audiences are, I think, more sympathetic to Clytemnestra than Ancient audiences would have been. It is far easier to sympathise with Deianeira as a tragic heroine, bringing about the downfall of herself and her loved one through an accident, or with Philoctetes and Neoptolemus - who at least has a moral dilemma over whether what he is doing is right or not. I think I prefer both Aeschylus and Euripides to Sophocles - but I don't mean to imply I don't like Sophocles, or don't like him all that much - I like all three a lot, I just like Aeschylus and Euripides that little bit more. That might be because I've had a chance to study plays by Aescylus and Euripides in depth, but never any of Sophocles' plays.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Spike Milligan; A Dustbin of Milligan

This is the final book that I read on Monday, and I read it purely because I needed an hour to kill whilst he carried on working before we headed over to mine. I didn't want to start anything big, because I already had two or three books that I was reading at mine, so I wanted something that would only take me that hour to read:

The book is a collection of poems, letters, short stories, and fairy tales and is mildly amusing throughout. Some passages may contain mild peril.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Jean-Dominique Bauby; The Diving-Bell & The Butterfly

This is another book I read yesterday, whilst not doing work. For those who don't know it, it's a biographical account of a man suffering from locked-in Syndrome - he is fully paralysed but still mentally aware, and can only communicate through blinking. And through blinking, he dictated this book. Obviously, it's not very long - but really, if it takes you five minutes to write one word, you're hardly going to attempt to write War and Peace.

It's interesting, but I thought it was quite guarded. He doesn't talk a great deal about how he feels, or about his life - by the end of it, you don't really know him as a person. You get the impression that there are a lot of emotions and memories he doesn't want to share - or perhaps he doesn't have the time to share. Perhaps the limits of his condition have made him ruthlessly edit his work down to the essentials of what he wants to communicate. I also got the impression that he'd written some of it to say either 'thank you,' or 'screw you,' to some of his nurses and doctors based on how they'd treated him - which is fair enough, in my books. If you've treated the man as if he's a vegetable, sub-human and not bothered to try and find out if he's comfortable, etc. because you're too afraid to look him in the eyes then you should be shamed, and he should be allowed to tell the world how you behaved - he can't complain how most of us normally would, so I don't have a problem with him complaining in the book - the frustration of not being able to talk and in taking 5 minutes to say anything at all must be frustrating beyond levels most of us can imagine. Good-bye witticisms and snappy retorts, and all but the most essential communications. As Tolkien's ents point out - when it takes a long, long time to say something, you don't say it unless it's worth taking a long, long time to say.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Oscar Wilde; Lady Windermere's Fan

So, taking the day off from work due to a bad cold, I found myself stuck in my boyfriend's house (I'm too achey too walk round mine right now) having finished the only book I brought with me. I have others at home that I've already started, so I wanted a quick read to keep me occupied for a few hours until I plucked up enough will to stumble home. Luckily, his housemate had a copy of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan which I proceeded to read with much enthusiasm. I don't think Aristotle could have found single fault with this play - the reveals, and lack thereof, the reversals, are all perfect - he would have approved entirely of the use of the fan. The plot is constructed perfectly, it's ups and downs keep you in suspense and the ending is wholly satisfying.

And that's not to mention his majestic use of wit and irony, in the characters, their speech, actions, and in the construction of the plot itself - simply masterful. From small matters to large, the irony is all pervasive and put to wonderful effect and use. Wilde is universally acknowledged as a master of witticisms, but they have so much more force when read in their proper context than when listed as one among hundreds on some internet site listing funny quotes. It takes an hour to read, and it's wonderful - funny, heart-breaking, heart-warming. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

The Upanishads

Actually, the title is misleading - it should be 'selections from The Upanishads' Since it's not all of them, and of the ones that are in the book, it's not even always all of those. At 143 pages it's a pretty short book (especially if you don't read the introduction, which takes up about 45 of those pages) but still worth the read. It's interesting to compare to Christian teachings, or even those of Plato, or other early philosophers. I would, perhaps, though, recommend reading a short introductory book to Hinduism first, unless for some reason or another you already happen to know the basics of it.

Books like this are not books that you can only enjoy if you agree with their teachings - you can engage with the content whether you agree with it or not - perhaps even more so if you don't agree with it. I am not a T/Daoist, but I enjoyed reading the Tao Te Ching/Dao De Jing, and my copy of it is heavily annotated in places (usually with quotes from Blake, comparing and contrasting his Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with the text). I think everyone should know a bit about the major world religions, regardless of which religion you follow, if any at all. And this book is good for that - it certainly beats wikipedia hands down.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Petronius; The Satyricon & the Fragments

The fragments attest that the Satyricon should not be taken simply at face value - as does the fact that Petronius was writing in the times of Nero. Unfortunately what we have of the Satyricon is fragmentary - they are significantly long fragments, true, but still only a small portion of the whole work. This makes it hard to decide what exactly to make of it - I know it has more than face value, but what that other value is, I'm not quite sure of. Is he being ironic? Satyrical? And if he is, what, exactly, is he satyrising? I don't know. The story is amusing, a little shocking in places (don't give it to your 10 year old to read). His portrayal of Trimalchio is fantastic. But I can't really imagine recommending this to anyone who didn't have a decent knowledge of classical literature/culture already - the humour would likely to be mostly lost. I can't even really comment on his skill as a poet, since I read it in translation and half of the genius of Latin poety simply does not translate into English.

Short review, huh?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Kierkegaard; The Concept of Irony

A slightly more hefty volume than my last few reads - 342 pages of concentration-demanding analysis of irony and Socrates (the full title being The Concept of Irony with Constant Reference To Socrates). This I read because my philosophy dissertation demanded it - my title being 'Socratic Irony'. It took me a while to get through, and I think if I wanted to understand all of it properly, I'd have to read it through again. Alas, I don't have time for that, and I understood most of it well enough for my purposes. The last 30 or so pages, however, are dedicated to irony in three authors with whose work I am unfamiliar, so they were mostly lost on me. I ploughed through them, however, partly from a stubborn refusal to put a book down 30 pages from the end simply because it appeared to have stopped being relevant to my research, and partly because I have learned that relevant insight and information can crop up even where you don't expect it.

The problem with many 'continental' philosophers, I find, it is that they make no attempt to make themselves clear. Whether this is through a stylization that simply came naturally to them, or through a conceit that 'if you're not smart enough to understand my style then you're not good enough to understand my philosophy' I know not. Perhaps it is neither, and I simply find their style overly verbose because I'm not familiar with it (my University's philosophy department focuses on the analytic philosophical tradition, not the continental).

Either way, it's not an easy read though easier than others , such as Nietzsche, or Kant. But that point momentarily aside, he has an interesting conception of Irony, which, though I'm not sure I agree with, provokes one to think about how you would define the concept yourself. His idea of Socrates was, for me, refreshing. But unless you have an overwhelming interest in Socrates and in particular his irony, then I'm not going to be recommending it to anyone. That's not to say I won't try reading anymore Kierkegaard - several of his other books seem quite interesting to me. But I won't be starting them in the next few months.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Jerome K. Jerome; Three Men in a Boat & Three Men on the Bummel

How cool is his name? Jerome Klapka Jerome. I'm sure he got annoyed of being called 'Jerome Jerome', and having to introduce himself as such, but I still think it's pretty damn cool.

Anyway, I, (Or I should say 'we') have been reading this book for a while. The reason it has taken so long, despite only being 340 odd pages long is because I've been reading it aloud to my boyfriend - the Domibear. We started reading a copy that just contained Three Men in a Boat but just as we were nearing the end we found in a charity shop a copy that contained both stories, so we bought that, and swapped to that version instead.

They're funny books. Full of witty observations about life, dogs, tourists, married life and language; as well as funny anecdotes about Uncles, DIY, bicycle repair and German drinking parties. Both of the above, are of course, combined with amusing incidents that befall our three protagonists as they wind their way along the Thames or cycle through Germany.

The humour I most appreciated, being the student of irony that I am, is the main character, J., innocently revealing his naivety on certain issues, with great ironic effect. Of the two, I preferred Three Men in a Boat. I felt it struck a better balance between witty observations, anecdotes and actual events. Domibear, being German, preferred Three Men on the Bummel (where they go for a bicycle tour in the Black Forest) for its observations on the German people. Being written in the 1890s, this is, of course, prior to both of the world wars, and therefore one cannot help but hear the cry of cosmic irony in some of his observations about the Germans being obedient people, willing to follow any command given them by a superior.

The endings to both books are rather abrupt and tend to catch you off guard. But on the whole, they are good, and we are sorry that they are over.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Alexander Solzhenitsyn; One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I noticed this book whilst perusing the list of '1001 books to read before you die', namely, because it was Russian, and I have a soft sport for Russian writers (and another for French playwrights). It came to my attention again when my housemate, with whom I share several literary tastes and often swap book recommendations, told me he had read it and thought it was rubbish. I know the 1001 list is hardly perfect - for starters they have no Greek authors on there and only one Roman author - and he not even the best. (I thought at first that might be because they wrote in poetry, and therefore didn't count, but then I noticed that Ovid had previously been on the list, so now they don't even have that excuse for their poor taste in any literature written pre 1700s). And then they have Ann Rice on the list. Urgh. I don't read many bad books because I spend so much time reading classics but Interview with a Vampire is one of the dullest books I've read, and has, to my mind, not a single likable character.

But, back to the book at hand. The fact that my housemate, whose opinion I value thought that this nobel-prize winning book was rubbish piqued my interest in it, so when I saw it in a charity shop a few days later for 50p, I picked it up.

At 143 pages it's another short, easy read. I certainly didn't find it as dull and repetitive as my housemate did, but I perhaps focused more on the emotions it generated than on trying to find interest in the plot. The title is fairly self-explanatory - the book tells the story of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich (or Shukhov) as he works in a Siberian Labour camp, working off a ten year sentence on a false charge of him being a spy, the fate, apparently, of many escaped Russian prisoners of war.

It was fascinating to read how the prisoners could work together and against each other, against the guards and with them, subconsciously changing or expanding their allegiances as the situation called for it. You see the men work for themselves, then how they work for their team and its members, and how the whole camp can unite in one spirit to shout abuse at the guards - previous enmity between then momentarily forgotten. To read how the dealt with the harsh life-style thrust unfairly upon them, and how the could come to think of the days that were slightly less awful than others as 'good days'. In short, it's not a book you read for the plot. It's a book you read for insight into how humans deal with suffering. And as such an insight, it's far from boring.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Vonnegut; Cat's Cradle

The biggest problem - the only problem of being both an avid reader and an undergrad is that I've had to compromise on my principle of reading every book I pick up through cover to cover. You just can't do it. I've read a lot this week, but I haven't managed to read a single book cover to cover - as much as I would have liked to, because they just weren't relevant to my essays/dissertations. It hurts, but if that's my biggest problem with academia, I think I'll survive.

Anyway, I finally managed to finish reading Cat's Cradle which is the first of Vonnegut's books I've read, shamefully. So, where to start? I loved the humour. It was delicious - my sort of humour through and through. I laughed out loud several times, and ended up reading little excerpts aloud to my domibear.

Apart from the humour it was interesting and an intelligent comment and criticism of religion and society. But no one needs me to tell them that. It's a short and easy read - Vonnegut certainly does not indulge in purple prose. I would say that it's thought provoking - if you let it be. I have a feeling that someone could read the book purely for the plot without forcing themselves to think about it any deeper, simply finding Bokononism a quaint and amusing idea - but I'm equally sure that they would get the distinct feeling they were missing something.