Borough Press’s #BookadayUK challenge is generating lots of interest, and is providing welcome relief from all the World Cup tweets that are filling my Twitter feed. So many books waiting to be read!
Time for another round-up of my choices: 8-20 today.
Day 8: Have more than one copy
Plays – Anton Chekhov
This was a tricky one. I don’t generally have more than one copy of a book and I’ve certainly not bought another copy of a book I’ve forgotten that I owned. I can see that it’s worth having different translations of a foreign language book that you love, and specialists will always want different editions of the same book. Most of us have limited book-buying budgets, though, and a duplicate copy means a brand new reading experience foregone.
I have a few of the Russian classics in duplicate copies, but this is more by accident than design. One of my husband’s colleagues was getting rid of a set of Russian literature, all bound identically in red and gold. They now sit on our shelves, but I suspect the days of the paperback duplicates are numbered.
Day 9: Film or TV tie-in
The Shock of the New – Robert Hughes
There’s not much non-fiction on this list so far. Given that I tend to alternate my reading between fiction and non-fiction, it’s time to remedy this. I’ve chosen Robert Hughes’s account of modern art, which was published shortly after the TV series of the same name was made in 1980. He was a great, enthusiastic, opionated commentator on art, with a voice that resounds from the page. Sadly, the BBC have not seen fit to release the programme on DVD, although it was repeated recently after Hughes’s death.
Day 10: Reminds you of someone I love
Short Stories – Saki
I first came across Saki in an anthology of British short stories. The chosen work was ‘The Toys of Peace’ in which a well-meaning liberal uncle buys his nephews some new toys (a John Stuart Mill doll, a model municipal waste facility) as a substitute for the toy soldiers and weaponry that little boys at the time were supposed to prefer. The story made my husband and I laugh out loud. We later discovered Saki’s other stories, including the thoughts of the wonderful Reginald. Shared laughter.
Day 11: Second hand bookshop gem
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
I love the smell of new books and the feel of the fresh pages. So while I like the idea of second-hand books, and enjoy a good browse in a second-hand bookshop, I rarely buy. In Beckside Books, Penrith, I picked up a copy of A Suitable Boy in very good condition and some piano music. Seth’s novel is one of the longest in the English language, but you don’t notice that, and I enjoyed it as much on the second reading as I had on the first in the 1990s. It has the breadth and pace of a good Victorian novel (and I mean that as a compliment). A sequel (A Suitable Girl) is scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2016. Will it live up to the first book?
Day 12: I pretend to have read it
There isn’t any book that I pretend to have read. I’ve always thought that that’s a dangerous game to play, as someone is bound to find you out.
If the challenge had been to name a book that I pretend not to have read, that would be interesting. Can I shamefacedly admit to reading anything by (say) Jeffrey Archer? I was young, I didn’t know what I was doing…
Day 13: Makes me laugh
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
Much safer ground here. I could have chosen Saki again, or P G Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, but for a book that is guaranteed to make me laugh, I turn to Lucky Jim. It’s not perfect: the female characters are unconvincing, unsympathetic, or both. But there are wonderful set pieces, including the famous Merrie England lecture. I’m not sure that Amis wrote anything better than this.
Day 14: An old favourite
Martha Quest – Doris Lessing
This is the first in the five-volume Children of Violence series. The books tell the story of Martha Quest from her adolescence in the African veldt, to her young womanhood in the city, her political awakening and ending up with her leaving Africa for London. They are semi-autobiographical. I read these a lot when I was in my late teens and early twenties. An English teacher recommended them. One of the most inspiring things about my education was that our English teachers actively encouraged us to read far and wide outside the A-level syllabus. It was about more than passing exams. I suspect Doris Lessing would have approved.
Day 15: Favourite fictional father
Emma – Jane Austen
There were lots of worthy choices on Day 15, with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird leading the way. I suspect, though, that most fictional fathers are absent (see Little Women or The Railway Children) or inadequate. Jane Austen’s fathers are definitely not paternal role models – even the much-loved Mr Bennet abdicates effective responsibility for his younger children and undermines his wife. Mr Woodhouse in Emma is a wonderfully comic creation with his selfishness and hypochondria, yet concern, albeit in a limited unempathetic way, for his friends.
Day 16: I can’t believe more people haven’t read this
The Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen isn’t much read these days. There is, perhaps, a buttoned-up quality that reflected her times (1930s and 1940s) but which is out of tune with modern tastes. This is another book that I first read in my late teens and the character of Portia, an awkward teenager, was probably guaranteed to attract my interest. The novel deals with betrayal and cruelty, that cold cruelty that isn’t really aware of what it is doing. This passage impressed me so much when I first read it:
Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous. Finding no language in which to speak in their own terms, they resign themselves to being translated imperfectly. They exist alone; when they try to enter into relations they compromise falsifyingly–through anxiety, through desire to impart and to feel warmth. The system of our affections is too corrupt for them. They are bound to blunder, then to be told they cheat. In love, the sweetness and violence they have to offer involves a thousand betrayals for the less innocent. Incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness. Their singleness, their ruthlessness, their one continuous wish makes them bound to be cruel, and to suffer cruelty. The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet–when they do meet, their victims lie strewn all around.
Day 17: Future classic
The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst
I could equally have chosen The Line of Beauty but wanted something more recent. The book is beautifully written with an elegiac quality. It addresses the relationship between past and present, and explores memory. As with Bowen, character ultimately matters more than plot.
Day 18: Recommended
Memoirs – Hector Berlioz
I’ll cheat a little here, because I haven’t bought this book. Instead, I borrowed it from the local public library – a fine institution. However, I would probably not have read it had it not been recommended by our choir’s conductor when we were rehearsing Berlioz’s Te Deum. If Berlioz hadn’t been successful as a composer, he would have made a great writer, although his main subject would most likely have been himself. The Memoirs are very funny.
Day 19: Still can’t stop talking about it
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
It’s taken 19 days but at last we’ve arrived at The Master and Margarita, probably my favourite book. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes the hypocrisy of Soviet society. The novel also tells the story of The Master, a novelist, and his lover, Margarita, and the book written by The Master about Pontius Pilate. It explores good and evil, love, compassion, cowardice and bravery, while remaining very funny. In Margarita, Bulgakov has created a bold and compassionate heroine. To cap it all, there is a Demon Cat, Behemoth, with a love for vodka, pickled mushrooms and chess.
Day 20: Favourite cover
Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
I love the simplicity of this cover and its echoes of the Jugendstil.
Clive James is one of the best writers around on culture, both high and low brow. He was one of the first people to take television criticism seriously, and is equally at home writing on Rainer Maria Rilke. His Prospect piece on Robert Frost is still available, as is his critique of Dan Brown. The latter almost makes me want to read the Da Vinci Code.