27 December, 2007

Christmas books

Hope all my readers had a good Christmas - and got the books they wanted...

19 December, 2007

More French stuff

Finally, two books for my course: Madame Bovary and Germinal. Both brilliant, and both re-reads, although I liked Madame Bovary far more now than I did when I was seventeen. (At the time I was rather earnestly political and thought Emma should pull herself together, stop moping about reading novels, and count her blessings, rather like the curé in the novel.) [83]

Germinal is also fantastic, although I still appreciate it mainly for the same reasons I did when I was seventeen: it's so brutal and angry, and Étienne is such a fantastic, human hero. [84]

And the rest

Quick catch-up of other books, as I probably won't get round to a longer post for them: The Tudors, by Christopher Morris (not that one), a short books about the Tudor Kings and Queens, the lastest Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovish, which was good fun but much like all the other Stephanie Plum books, and Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, which didn't really work. [79] [80] [81]

However, on various people's recommendations,I read and loved Meg Rosoff's How I live now, which was a lovely, sad novel about a teenage girl who moves from New York to Britain and gets caught up in a war. I thought this was wonderful and really want to read her other book now. [82]

15 December, 2007

Modern german novels

I haven't been updating this as much as I should, but other stuff has been keeping me busy. Anyway, I've been reading German stuff and really enjoying it, especially as it's all been very short. I love short novels and novellas.

Wolfgang Koeppen's Death in Rome, which was short and chilling and bitterly angry, an examination of Germany after the war. Four men reunite in Rome: a former Nazi mayor, now democratically elected Bürgermeister and his brother, a former SS-man now wanted for war crimes, and their respective sons, a conductor and a priest. As a discussion of what Germany and the Germans are, it's pretty brutal, but the structure and balance of the book is wonderful: a review I saw described it as 'choreographed like a ballet'. I want to read his other books about post-war Germany, Pigeons on the grass and The hothouse, but only found A sad affair in the library, his novel about a true life obsession with a cabaret singer. Not such an interesting theme or gripping book, but a fab Weimar-decadence atmosphere: even ze orchestra are beautiful. Thanks to N for the initial recommendation of Death in Rome. [74] [75]

Two more books of Joseph Roth's (I seem to be reading my way through his complete works, but he's so brilliant, it's great). Left and right, a novel about two brothers during the rise of the Nazis, and some of Roth's journalism from 1920s Berlin, collected as What I saw. The journalism is great and really captures the uneasiness of the time, as well as being funny. [76] [77]

And another German writer, another short book, and another recommendation from a friend, Stefan Zweig's Twilight, which was charming and sad. [78]

06 December, 2007

Politics and music

A little book, more like a pamphlet, called When ol' blue eyes was a red, which was a valiant attempt to save Sinatra from his older, Reagan embracing, 'That's Dr Sinatra, you little bimbo' right-wing image, and make a case for him being a subversive leftie in his youth. It's not a very good case. He was a pretty good guy in his youth; he made several prominent stands against racism long before the civil rights movement was really big, and it's well documented that he was a generous, liberal guy who gave generously to some left causes. Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly's first wife, who was very left wing, enough that she was blacklisted, described him as a 'good democrat', and that's alway been my impression of him too. This book tries to stretch it out into something more and doesn't really succeed. [72]

Rednecks and bluenecks, a book about the politics of country music, was very interesting: it starts with the reception that the Dixie Chicks got in the US when they made a joke about George Bush, and then interviews a whole lot of country musicians about their politics. It paints a very interesting picture of American society and what seem like great fractures based on moral and political beliefs, and made me want to track down quite a lot of coutry music (i only really know the older, schmaltzy stuff). [73]

10 November, 2007

War, revolution, and an uneasy peace

Reading around my Weimar republic course, I picked up AJP Taylor's illustrated First World War, which was a brilliant short read: the photos are fantastic, and he writes so well, with a dry humour. Followed that with a re-read: John Reed's Ten days that shook the world - not so enormously related to the Weimar republic, but I hadn't read it since I was a teenager, and I'd forgotten what an exciting book it is, and how well it captures the tension and suspense of the developing Russian revolution. What amazes me abut both the Russian revolution and the beginning of the Weimar republic is how delicately balanced everything is; the what-ifs are overwhelming. In both cases, although particularly in Germany, it might only have needed a public rally or meeting to have a different mood, or a different politician to have seized the intiative an hour earlier for world history to have been unrecognizably changed. [69] [70]

Peter Gay's Weimar culture was very interesting: an examination of artistic and intellectual life in the Weimar Republic showing how influential Germany was as a cultural centre during the fifteen years of the Weimar republic, and also how the effective exile from Germany of most of its cultural heavyweights had the effect of dispersing the most radical modernist thought and art around the world. [71]

28 October, 2007

Women's literature

Two books about women's literature, of a very different kind: Rosemary Auchmuty's A world of women was an interesting follow-up to her book A world of girls, but ultimately either unconvincing or repetitive. A world of girls dealt with the school stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elsie Oxenham, and A world of women revisits these, looking at adulthood and the process of growing up in the school story. While I liked Auchmuty's suggestion that one of the important reasons for the popularity of the school story was that it presented a purely female world as as supportive and fulfilling atmosphere in which girls and young women could achieve on their own terms, what she mostly does in the later book is reiterate this. However, her suggestion that the unreality of the heterosexual romantic relationships in all these school novels is a deliberate ploy on the part of the authors in order to subvert the conventional future envisaged for young women at this time seems to be to be completely far-fetched: the cursory way that the romances are sometimes described may be down to the writers' lack of interest in the romance genre. but to posity this as a deliberate subversion seems to me to be an exaggeration of the conscious feminism of the writers as well as an overestimation of their writing talents. [67]

Elaine Showalter's A literature of their own: British women novelists from Brontë to Lessing was a wonderful book, looking at women's writing in terms of Showalter's proposed periods of feminist consciousness: first feminine consciousness, in which women internalise patriarchal views of their own abilities and attributes and strive to be as good as men, then feminist consciousness, in which women protest against the prevailing patriarchal attitudes, and finally female consciousness, in which women turn to female experience as a method of self-discovery and self-expression. I really thought this was wonderful: half cultural history and half literary criticism. It makes me need to reread all the Brontës and Eliot and read some more Virginia Woolf. Luckily, I currently have plenty of reading time... [68]

Three French novels and others

All very different, but all brilliant.

Nana was brilliant in atmosphere: Zola describes the hot, odorous backstage of the Variétés in such a physical way that you can almost feel the sickly stuffiness. I also loved the way he contrasts the two worlds in Parisian society: the contrast between the Comtesse Muffat's icily respectable reception and the dinner organised by Nana is wonderful - the men are the same group of aristocrats, but the women are different, and the way that Nana tries to bring an air of elegance to her evening but only succeeds in producing a rather incongruously bourgeois atmosphere is wonderfully described. The last scene, in which Nana is dying in a hotel, surrounded not by the men she has lived off but the actresses and prostitutes she has competed against, is unforgettable: outside the crowds are calling 'To Berlin! To Berlin!' as the Franco-Prussian war begins and upstairs Nana is lying with her beauty destroyed, dying in the most disgusting and painful way.

L'éducation sentimentale also shows a French society which is divided between the respectable women and the underworld of prostitution, with men moving freely between the two, and is also a reflection of the perceived corrupt French society at the time, but more bitterly ironic and less tortured than Zola. It's a sort of Bildungsroman, but describing the way in which Frédéric Moreau loses all of his youthful ideals and becomes ever more jaded: with his security assured by an inheritance, his life becomes more and more aimless as he rejects or fails at each of the possibilities which present themselves to him. I like the way that money is written about so exactly in French novels of this period: as Frédéric's fortunes diminish, the amount he has to live on per year are given in precise amounts, and in all three novels money is dealt with very openly and precisely.

Le rouge et le noir also deals with a young man starting out in life, but a completely different man: Julien Sorel is driven and proud, a secret Bonapartist, the opposite of diffident Frédéric. This is a marvellously strange novel: partly a sort of satire of Romantic novels of young men setting out in the world - in Le rouge et le noir everything is so measured and calculated, every step Julien takes is because he feels he can move up the social ladder in some way - partly a cold denunciation of the France of 1830, with its hypocritical municipal officials, small-mindedness and the rule of the Catholic Church. Stendhal looks so coldly upon his characters and their motives for everything, but can't help every so often making a sly, amused remark about their behaviour which stands oddly with what feels like his disgust with the state of the world. [64]

Doris Lessing has written that "the ideal lover of Stendhal comes, as he did, from a family of conventional people in a provincial town... which is snug, complacent and reactionary, both politically and socially". In her Martha Quest novels, she describes the society she comes from: the white colonial world of Rhodesia. I read, or rather re-read, Martha Quest in the spring, and have now got round to the next two books, A proper marriage and A ripple from the storm. These are fantastic evocations of the time and place: the colonies in a period when liberation of the native populations was not viewed as a possibility, but also when the coming of the second world war gave the impression that everything had to change, and radically. A proper marriage is about Martha's stifling marriage to a conventional man and contains one of the most eye-wateringly horrific descriptions of institutionalised childbirth I have ever read, as well as evoking the bizarre provincialism and claustrophobia of the white world in Rhodesia in a very clever and dark way. In A ripple in the storm Martha has left her husband and become involved with a nascent, tiny Communist group, and bizarrely Lessing manages to make a book which consists of a series of political meetings very funny - as well as bitter. [65] [66]

16 October, 2007

Catching up

I am currently very, very behind, so here is a list of what I've read recently and I'll try to do some longer posts on these books later.

Nana [51]
L'éducation sentimentale [52]
George Steiner's The death of tragedy [53]
Billy Collins's Questions about angels [54]
Michael Hamburger's Selected poems [55]
Another poetry book, the title and author of which I have completely forgotten, and which I can only check when I next go to the Poetry Library [56]
Sheila Rowbotham's Dreams and dilemmas, a lovely collection of articles [57]
The Spare Rib reader [58]
A study of the poetry of Keith Douglas, by William Scammell [59]
The night watch, by Sarah Waters [60]
Flight without end, by Joseph Roth [61]
The roaring nineties, by Joseph Stiglitz [62]
A collection of children's wartime and holocaust diaries, collected by Laurel Holliday [63]

I'm currently in the middle of Le rouge et le noir, The selfish gene, Elaine Showalter's A literature of their own and a history of Germany 1918-1990. More soon...

Edit: book number 56 is Jack Gilbert's Transgressions: selected poems.

11 October, 2007

Oh and also

I haven't posted in ages and I've read about fifteen books in that time. Will try and do a big catch-up post over the weekend.

Doris Lessing has been awarded the Nobel prize

Fantastic news. One of my favourite ever authors, and the Golden Notebook is for me one of the most important books I've ever read. I am so utterly delighted about this, it's ridiculous.

19 September, 2007

Woo hoo

I'm going to Paris! For a long weekend in November to do the art galleries. Hooray! So: good modern* novels set in Paris, anyone?

* I have the nineteenth century coming out of my ears at the moment.

30 August, 2007

Recommendations wanted

Can anyone recommend a good basic book about economics? I realised during the stock market wobble a couple of weeks ago how little I know about the way the economy works. The other recommendation I'd like is a good history of nineteenth century France. All suggestions gratefully received.

29 August, 2007

Do you know...

...I don't think there's one single book on this list of the Observer's top ten must-reads of the autumn that I actually want to read. Book review sections in newspapers make me tired.

Catching up

I haven't been keeping up with the books I've read recently so here's a quick catch up post.

Two short books of funny essays by David Sedaris, on the recommendation, ages ago, of my friend P. Me talk pretty one day and Dress your family in corduroy and denim were light, quick reads, but very enjoyable: I like things about large eccentric families and his essays about living in France were very funny and not patronising. [47] [48]

Ahdaf Soueif's Mezzaterra, a collection of essays and journalism mostly about the Middle East, was also enjoyable and interesting: I enjoyed her novels The map of love and In the eye of the sun, and she's very interesting on day-to-day life in Egypt. Her journalism about Palestine was published in the Guardian a few years ago. [49]

Alas poor Darwin, a collection of essays by different people criticising different aspects of evolutionary psychology. This was excellent, examining the problems with the idea that most aspects of human mental behaviour are the products of natural selection, from a variety of different viewpoints: the book was edited by Steven and Hilary Rose, respectively a biologist and a sociologist, and included Stephen Jay Gould on the faults with ultra-Darwinism and Mary Midgley on the problems with Dawkins's selfish gene and the philosophical meanings drawn from this by Daniel Dennett. Very interesting indeed, and a good retort to a lot of the ridiculous stories about evolutionary adaptations that the newspapers print, like this recent Guardian story suggesting that women naturally prefer pink because as 'gatherers' they would have been looking out for red berries. [50]

14 August, 2007

...And the rest of my holiday reading

A weird little book by Amélie Nothomb, Acide sulfurique, which was a satirical novella based on the idea of a reality TV show showing a concentration camp. I liked Nothomb's previous weird little fable Robert des noms propres but this bothered me a lot. Nothomb has a cruel, whimsical imagination, which didn't trouble me so much as did her discourse about honour and dignity in the concentration camp. I can't help feeling that in the concentration camp, an insitution specifically designed to remove all humanity and dignity from people, debates about the morality of, for example, sleeping with a kapo in return for bread are redundant. I also find the juxtaposition of the transcendently beautiful, serene and dignified heroine Pannonique with the ugly kapo Zdena rather unpleasant: why should beauty be at all important? [46]

10 August, 2007

I read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate on my holidays (incidentally, reading a lengthy novel about Stalingrad and the Holocaust while swanning around the Languedoc did make me think of this cartoon), and I was incredibly impressed. I had already read around half of it but had to start again in order to remember who everyone was.

This was a wonderful, enormous, human book: like War and Peace, it depicts a vast network of people connected by marriage and friendship, all affected by the Holocaust, the war, and Stalin's repression in the Soviet Union. The central character, Viktor Shtrum, is a Jewish physicist, working on nuclear reactions: after being denounced by his colleagues for expressing internationalist views on the importance of science, and when he is expecting imminent arrest and imprisonment, he receives a phone call from Stalin wishing him well with his work. With Stalin's awareness of the importance of nuclear physics Grossman gives us a small reminder of what the next horror of world history will be.

Viktor's mother Anna Semyonovna is a Jew living in the Ukraine who is deported to the death camps. Her letter to her son, written with a clear awareness of her own fate, is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces in the book. I also liked the way Grossman discusses the differences between Stalin and Hitler's repression: it's a monstrous concentration camp Kommandant who equates the two systems, and other reviewers have suggested that this is Grossman's view as well, but I thought the emphasis on Stalin's caprice - in Viktor's case, benevolent caprice - suggested that the oppression in the two countries was more systemic in Fascist Germany but a terrible result of one man's ultimate power in the USSR (although that is too simplistic a way of putting it: who knows whether the Third Reich could have continued after Hitler's death? The Soviet Union's repression didn't end with Stalin's.). [45]

I must now read A writer at war: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, which is a collection of Grossman's notebooks and articles from when he was a war correspondent. Anthony Beevor used them in his book Berlin: the downfall which I wrote about here, and I though his observations were wonderful. One of the wonderful things aboiuth Life and fate was how real the scenes of battle and the concentration camps were: it seems that Grossman was at the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of Auschwitz, and also that many of the soldiers and incidents he describes in Life and fate come from real life and are written about in his diaries of the time.

Harry Potter again

I read the last Harry Potter, which I'm not going to go on about because I've already complained about HP at length here. It was workmanlike enough, tied up a few loose ends, and didn't need an editor as much as the previous two books had. [44]

The most interesting thing, though, was that Southwark libraries had loads of copies available on the day of publication - when the fifth book was published, the libraries in Newham where I lived at the time were booked up weeks in advance with requests for copies. Is this because competitive discounting means that people don't need to bother with the libraries any more because a new copy of the book to own will only cost a fiver? Or do people assume that the book is so popular that it won't be available in the library?

21 July, 2007

What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

This is the theme of CLR James's famous book about West Indian cricket, which is a strange and wonderful book. I don't know enough about cricket to appreciate it as much as I could, but I found it fascinating. It's partly a social history of cricket in the context of the colonies, and a discussion of the ways that cricket influenced the struggle for liberation in the West Indies, and partly a discussion of the aesthetics of cricket: James compares cricket to the Olympics of the Ancient Greeks, but also describes it as an art form, comparing it with formalised physical forms like ballet.

It's also partly a memoir of James's life: his upbringing is deeply connected with playing, watching and talking about cricket, to the extent that it is through cricket and the local racial politics associated with it that James's consciousness of the politics of the British Empire is really awoken. [43]

19 July, 2007

Harry Potter rant part 2

And following the Guardian's suggestion that Hermione is the sine qua non of female heroines in children's fiction, here's my off-the-top-of-my-head top ten female heroines who don't fit into what the Guardian perceives as the fictional female stereotype of being all books and no looks or their alternative stereotype of a clingy impediment.

1. Dido Twite in Joan Aiken's Willoughby Chase series of books. Dido is clever, engaging, and almost always more resourceful and brave than the men she meets. The books are superb and magical: a weird kind of alternative history in which the Stuart line still have the throne in 19th century Britain, and where wolves come through the Channel Tunnel.
2. Jo March in Little Women. The most famous proto-feminist heroine of all. She comes behind Dido only because I love Dido most of all. Spawned a million imitations - the most famous may be Joey Bettany in the Chalet School books.
3. Cassie in Roll of thunder, hear my cry and the sequels by Mildred D Taylor: brilliant evocations of pre-war Mississippi with an incredibly bright and strong black heroine. I wrote about these last year.
4. Pippi Longstocking in the books by Astrid Lingren.
5. Nancy in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. Confident and impressive, she changes her name from Ruth to Nancy 'because Amazons are ruthless': compare with the bizarre (transgender?) depiction of George in Enid Blyton's Famous Five books.
6. Nicola Marlow in the school and family stories by Antonia Forest.
7. Alanna, the lady knight, in the books by Tamora Pierce. Brilliant feminist fantasy novels about young women trying to get on in a man's world.
8. Anastasia, the eponymous heroine of Lois Lowry's series of novels. (Anastasia's mum is pretty fab too.) Lowry writes terrific, real women and girls - read Find a stranger, say goodbye or Rabble Starkey for others.
9. Rusty in Michelle Magorian's Back Home, a sea-vacuee who returns from the US after the second world war to find that her mother is expecting the pallid, nervous eight-year-old she sent away. Magorian also writes great women in her wonderfully researched historical novels - other good books are A little love song and A spoonful of jam.
10. Rita Formica in Barbara Wersba's Fat: a love story and sequels. No one ever seems to have heard of these books, but they're the best of the quirky young adult literature popular in the 1970s - similar to the strange characters of Paul Zindel. Rita Formica is fat, and Wersba makes the character talk about the difficulties of being a fat woman with enormous humour and intelligence. These have stuck in my mind since I first read them at eleven.

I could mention a million other books: Katherine Paterson's Jacob have I loved, Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan with its child-priestess Tenar, or the Little house on the prairie books. I could talk about the classic fairy tales and how many of them have resourceful, brave female heroines. But what I mainly want to do is get annoyed at how the Guardian can write such an ignorant leader.

Harry Potter rant part 1

Nicholas Lezard takes issue here with JK Rowling's prose, in an article which I agree with entirely (despite having read all of the six books so far). I've been wondering whether the Potter books will last as children's books and I think they will - but in the same way that Enid Blyton's books have, rather than as the kind of children's classic that can be appreciated by all readers. Kids still read and love Enid Blyton, but there seems to be a definite cut-off point where one suddenly realises how empty her writing is; as an adult, I find them entirely unreadable.

The problem is not just with Rowling's prose, leaden though that undeniably is. There's a greater failing of imagination which means that although Rowling's stories work in theory, they're strangely lifeless in practice. The first three books, in which the story is limited to being a boarding school adventure with magic, work better than the later ones, in which Rowling's attempts to move the overarching story to the grand epic scale fall terribly flat. The focus of the stories moves to become a struggle between good and evil, but Rowling's skill at narrative isn't strong enough to make this gripping. We're also not given enough information about what the results of Voldemort's victory actually would be: compare this with Susan Cooper's excellent The dark is rising sequence, in which the implications of the Dark rising are explained, and we are told that the last great rising of the Dark was during the barbarian victories over roman civilisation.

I've enjoyed the Harry Potter books that I've read, in the superficial way that I enjoy trash, but I think that what children love about them is the plethora of delightful details, and the reassurance of seeing the same situations repeated again and again: the triumph of the children over the grown-ups, the way that breaking rules and disobeying authority figures comes right in the end as the disobedient kids save the day, even the orphan figure finding love and acceptance in a new world. Clichéd situations and glorious details - these are the standard techniques of trash fiction: think of Ian Fleming's absurd levels of detail about Bond's shaving products, or any of the 1980s shopping and fucking novels. But in JK Rowling's case it feels much too borrowed and stale to ever really come alive: she's not borrowing from the myth and religion of the past as Susan Cooper and CS Lewis did, she's borrowing from people who've borrowed from that.

I will probably read the seventh book, eventually, as I have a nerdy obsession with completeness. But whether my children will read or know these books is certainly doubtful.

09 July, 2007

In praise of skipping

I came across these compact editions recently in Waterstones and I find them incredibly depressing, as does John Mullan in the Guardian.

There's a lot of tutting around about dumbing down: Jenny Diski's post on her blog seems pretty typical of this - but I can sympathise to a certain extent with people who might be drawn to shortened editions of the classics. What I think is a real shame, though - I meant to write to the Guardian Review in response to Mullan's article but didn't get around to it - is that children are not taught at school that it's ok to skip parts of books.

There are plenty of books, from trashy junk to heavy classics, that I haven't read every word of - I'd actually be surprised if any prolific readers have read every word of every book - but it's possible to enjoy a book and get an enormous amount out of it while still skipping the parts that don't grab you. And I suspect that it's literature teaching which focuses with squinty-eyed concentration on covering the entire text which makes people feel that skipping is cheating. But a book is a permanent, solid thing: it will always be there for you. I loved Les Misérables, and bits of it stay with me incredibly vividly, but the lengthy recreations of the Battle of Waterloo didn't hold my attention. If I ever feel I want to read them in more detail, the book is there, on my shelf. If it's not on my shelf, it's in the library.

I wrote earlier in the year about Daniel Pennac and his rights of the reader - he writes very well on the way that the joy of reading is removed from literature lessons. I recommend his book to anyone who's thinking about reading and the joy of reading - he writes so clearly and with such humour.

What the 'compact editions' do is prevent the reader from choosing for him or herself which bits to read and which bits to skip, and it's this that I find depressing. Rather than reading a book which is specifically designated and marketed as 'easier' that the real thing, it's a shame that people aren't given the confidence in the first place to read what they truly want to read, while still feeling able to expand their horizons. I like very much Doris Lessing's advice to readers in the introduction to The golden notebook:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping them when they drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought... Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty - and vice versa. Don't read a book out of its right time for you.

I don't always read like this, but it's splendid advice in principle, I think.

06 July, 2007

Two novels by I B Singer

I really enjoyed Isaac Bashevis Singer's The certificate: it was funny and touching and I thought it described the anxieties of poverty very well. Enemies: a love story is IB Singer's first book set in America, among Holocaust survivors, and I thought that was very good too. It's a strange story of a bigamist, in some ways almost farcical, but the shadow of the Holocaust hangs too heavily over all of the characters to let it be funny: all of them are consumed with paranoia and desperation. [42]

03 July, 2007

Two feminist books

My feminist group recently discussed Naomi Wolf's The beauty myth and Imelda Whelehan's Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminism.

The beauty myth was a satisfying piece of polemic, but I had a lot of problems with it. It describes something which is central to my life and to the lives of the (mostly youngish, mostly middle class) women I know: the constant commercial pressure to be more beautiful, more soignée, better dressed, thinner, younger looking, and it describes it superbly: the chapter on eating disorders is very powerful, and Wolf's analysis of the plastic surgery industry is impressively prescient now that having one's boobs done has become almost mainstream. But the book falls down when Wolf attempts to stretch the pressure to be beautiful into the overarching structure oppressing women today.

She begins with a chapter on the workplace, which I think is her weakest: she refers to employment court cases in which women have had sackings and demotions upheld by courts who agreed that their personal appearance did not meet the accepted standards - but many of her cases are old (mid-seventies) and from notoriously sexist employers: the US airlines and Playboy. It's difficult to sympathise with a writer who claims that the need to have plastic surgery constitutes a dangerous working environment, especially when one considers the millions of women all round the world who undergo far more dangerous working environments - garment workers in 'invisible' sweatshops in the East End of London, for example.

While I agree with what she says, the main problem for me with this book was that it is not political enough, and that she tries to make one aspect of women's oppression, 'beauty', become the overriding oppressive structure, at least in the Western world. She refers several times to Betty Friedan's The feminine mystique, which I think is telling: it's another book which is less political than it could have been, but which also successfully and powerfully defined an oppressive cultural structure for millions of (mostly middle class) women in the 60s. The wider-ranging analysis of Susan Faludi's Backlash, published in the same year as The beauty myth (1991) seems more successful to me. [40]

The other book we read, Overloaded, was less impressive: it's a feminist analysis of various aspects of popular culture of the late nineties (the 'ladette' phenomenon, Loaded magazine and ironic sexism, the 'Girl Power' of the Spice Girls, and the ineffectual 'singletons' Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones). It's sadly dated, which is always a risk when analysing the most ephemeral level of pop culture, but it also misses its mark on more than one occasion. I've always read Bridget Jones, for example, as a (gentle) satire on the ineffectual Cosmo readers who believe calorie-counting and a positive mental outlook is what will eventually make them happy; Whelehan seems to take it all too seriously. Her discussion of the 'ladettes', too, is mainly confined to hand-wringing and complaints that these women don't understand what feminism is all about; it seems to me that any feminist look at women who are behaving 'like men' must take into account the fact that these women are being celebrated for behaving like men in a way that wasn't possible forty years ago: superficial phenomenon though this is, is does represent a widening of women's possible behaviours and is therefore a liberation, at least of of sorts. [41]

29 June, 2007

Reading block

I can't seem to settle to anything serious at the moment, so what I've been reading recently have mainly been children's books and trash.

First, two more Rosemary Sutcliff books: The eagle of the ninth and The silver branch. Last year I read the third book in the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, which is about the end of the Roman rule in Britain: these first two books are set earlier. She's very good on the eerie wildness of the uncivilised parts of Britain and she gets in a lot of the small ways in which the Romans changed Britain:
the lasting legacy of the Romans in Britain which, along with Hadrian's wall and underfloor heating, included cabbages, apples, roses and the domestic cat. (Guardian review of The Eagle of the Ninth)
Vaguely following on from these (a couple of the characters appear) is her re-telling of the Arthurian story, Sword at sunset, which is truly excellent. [35] [36]

I've also read a few graphic novels: I re-read a couple of the Sandman ones and also read 'V' for vendetta, by Alan Moore (writer) and David Lloyd (artist). Set in a post-apocalyptic, fascist Britain of the late nineties (following nuclear World War III in the late eighties), it's about freedom and anarchism, with the central character V as an anarchist dressed as Guy Fawkes, committing terrorist acts with the intention of wreaking havoc and encouraging the population to revolt against the fascist leadership. It was too Orwellian to really please me: as in 1984, the people are an undifferentiated silent mass, with no individuality or any apparent will of their own. I also had problems with the connection of destruction and creation: it reminds me too much of my own immature revolutionary ideas. Still, the book was cleverly done; I only noticed afterwards that it had been done without thought bubbles and 'scene-setting' captions, which adds real tension to the story. [37]

Lastly, I read Cashelmara, by Susan Howatch - I love Susan Howatch's early blockbusters, they're spendidly melodramatic but not badly written and the plot thunders along. [38]

Awfully written, on the other hand - so terrible that I couldn't actually read more than a third of it - was Jilly Cooper's latest bonkbuster, Wicked! Set in a sink school - featuring 'feral' care children who quote Shelley and a sexy young headmistress who 'really communicates' with the children by comparing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with Tony and Cherie Blair - this was part Tory education manifesto (the sexy headmistress makes her school a success by establishing a link with the local private school, of course, which in proper Jilly style is run by an equally sexy headmaster), part sleepwalking assortment of the worst of Jilly's favourite clichés, part unreadable idiocy demonstrating very clearly that Jilly wouldn't recognise a poor teenager if she were mugged by one. Quite possibly the worst book I've read this century. [39]

19 June, 2007


I joined Camden Libraries in my lunchbreak - St Pancras Library is the closest, which is a ten-minute walk from work through lovely Bloomsbury backstreets. This brings the number of libraries I'm a member of up to seven:

Southwark Libraries
Newham Libraries
Redbridge Libraries
Camden Libraries
Senate House (and technically all the little research libraries around it)
The Poetry Library on the South Bank (currently still closed for refurbishment, I think)
Birkbeck library

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark... In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed. -- Germaine Greer

14 June, 2007

Michael Hamburger dies

I'm sorry to hear of the death of poet and translator Michael Hamburger, who translated several of my favourite poets into English including Paul Celan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Rilke. He was a good poet himself - see my poetry blog for one of my favourites. I must get round to reading his book The truth of poetry at some point.

07 June, 2007

The summer starts here

I finished my last exam yesterday, which couldn't have gone better, so I'm free for the next four months. The nicest thing about the end of exams is that I no longer have that feeling of guilt whenever I pick up a non-course-related book - it's nice to feel I can read anything I want. Went straight to the library after my exam and got out lots of books that weren't about German philosophy or French literature of the Enlightenment.

At the moment I'm reading Imelda Whelehan's Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminism, for my women's group, and this weekend I'm going to try and finish Life and fate, finally. I'm now making lists of all the things I want to read over the summer, including some of the reading for next year's course on Realism and the 19th century novel. I've already read Madame Bovary but have never read any Stendhal or Balzac, so that should be interesting.

29 May, 2007

Quick catch-up

I'm in the middle of exams and frantically busy so here's a quick catch-up list of what I've read recently and I'll try to do a better post a bit later:

The devil wears Prada [28]
Martin Walker's The cold war [29]
Les liaisons dangereuses [30]
Dreams and dilemmas, collected essays and early writings by Sheila Rowbotham [31]
The selected poems of Yehuda Amichai [32]
The certificate, by Isaac Bashevis Singer [33]
Inventing God, by Nicholas Mosley [34]

15 May, 2007

Very old book

I've just been holding a very old book: printed in 1613, a reprint of the legal cases that came in front of Edward the third! The print is a beautiful Gothic script, and the paper is still perfect - apparently a lot of pre-Industrial Revolution books are in a lot better nick than Victorian ones as the hand-made paper doesn't decay and crumble. Just an amazing, beautiful thing to hold and look at. I can't read it because it's all written in legal Latin, apart from some of the details of printing which are in French.

10 May, 2007

Yet another way to spend too much money in my lunch breaks

Visited Skoob bookshop yesterday, just behind the recently revamped Brunswick Centre, and it's lovely: light and nicely organised and with loads of books I fancied. I could have spent a lot more there than the ten quid I modestly confined myself to. That's the fourth decent bookshop near my work, along with the Amnesty bookshop which is a ten minute cycle ride away, the Oxfam bookshop on Bloomsbury St and the excellent Gower St Waterstones. And that's without counting Gay's the Word and the art and architecture bookshop on Marchmont St, and the remainder bookshop on Southampton Row.

09 May, 2007

Two interviews and some pictures

Interview with Will Self about children's literature, reading and writing.

An old interview with Anthony Gormley, who has an amazing installation of iron men around Waterloo Bridge.

Photos on flickr of Anthony Gormley's iron men around the South Bank Centre. Cycling over Waterloo Bridge at twilight you suddenly notice how many there are - they're distinctly eerie.

08 May, 2007

Bedside table books

I've done this before, a couple of months ago, but Sarah Crown listed her bedside table books in the Guardian the other day so I thought I'd list mine again and see what's changed. This includes the ones currently piled on the floor next to the table...

Catalogue for the Renoir Landscapes exhibition currently on at the National Gallery
Catalogue for In the face of history, the excellent photography exhibition that was on a while ago at the Barbican
Tender Comrades: a backstory of the Hollywood blacklist, by Patrick McGilligan
The certificate, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, my new favourite author
Enemies, a love story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer
The coming of the French Revolution, by Henri Lefebvre
The selected poetry of Yehuda Amichai
The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
On not being able to sleep, essays by Jacqueline Rose
Le feu, by Henri Barbusse
Slaughterhouse 5
Life and fate
An omnibus edition of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories
Les liaisons dangereuses
Inventing God, by Nicholas Mosley
Dreams and dilemmas, essays by Sheila Rowbotham
Is the future female? critique of radical feminism by Lynne Segal
A century of women, by Sheila Rowbotham
Suite française, by Irène Nemirovsky
Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

04 May, 2007


Found a copy of the Doonesbury book One step at a time in the Oxfam bookshop this lunchtime. It's the story of BD losing his leg in Iraq. Amazing, and the only newspaper comic strip ever to make me cry.

Also picked up two books by my new favourite feminist Sheila Rowbotham: Woman, Resistance and Revolution and Woman's Consciousness, Man's World, and selected poems by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub. I haven't looked yet to see if it contains one of my favourite poems by him, Zito the Magician:

To amuse His Royal Majesty he will change water into wine.
Frogs into footmen. Beetles into bailiffs. And make a Minister
out of a rat. He bows, and daisies grow from his finger-tips.
And a talking bird sits on his shoulder.


Think up something else, demands His Royal Majesty.
Think up a black star. So he thinks up a black star.
Think up dry water. So he thinks up dry water.
Think up a river bound with straw-bands. So he does.


Then along comes a student and asks: Think up sine alpha greater than one.
And Zito grows pale and sad. Terribly sorry. Sine is
Between plus one and minus one. Nothing you can do about that.
And he leaves the great royal empire, quietly weaves his way
Through the throng of courtiers, to his home in a nutshell.

Miroslav Holub

27 April, 2007

Wasting time at work, no. 736 in a continuing series

Goodreads.com is my latest discovery while searching for non-talkboard ways to pass the time at work. (I did try doing lots of work but I slightly terrified my boss, so I've cut back on that a bit.) Goodreads is a way of sharing reviews and letting other people know what you're reading at the moment. It's a bit fiddly to use; it took me some time to work out how to add friends but seems interesting. Like a lot of these things the more people you know on there the better it is.

26 April, 2007

Three quick books

I was off sick on Tuesday so I ended up spending the afternoon in bed reading. I should have taken the opportunity to press on with Les liaisons dangereuses but didn't, instead polishing off Doris Lessing's Martha Quest which I realised part of the way through I had started before but not finished (that's such a strange feeling), Angela Carter's Heroes and villains which was great but weird and a collection of interviews with Doris Lessing, Putting the questions differently. I love Doris Lessing, and her novel The golden notebook had an enormous influence on me when I was eighteen, but sometime she comes across as just plain loopy. She noticeably moves from quite a common sense materialist view of the world in the early sixties to believing in all sorts of things like ESP. (A friend who heard her speak tells me that she also believes in David Icke's lizard theories.) [25] [26] [27]

23 April, 2007

Essay fatigue

I am exhausted after a weekend spent writing essays: one on Voltaire, and one on Adorno and Horkheimer. I hate coursework: my natural inclination is to leave everything until the last minute and then work long days and nights to get it done, I seem completely unable to work steadily no matter how early I begin. Also, I actively enjoy exams: under high pressure I can work really well and do myself justice. However, I can only blame myself for choosing to write an essay on Adorno: I thought it might be interesting to get to grips with one of the more challenging writers on the course but in fact it's mostly been difficult. Still, I think my essay is all right.

I haven't read much recently: short frustrating chapters of books on Voltaire and Adorno, interspersed with bits of kids' books and trash to switch my mind off after studying. Next one up is Les liaisons dangereuses, though, for my French lit class - I started it in the bus this morning and it looks good. I might also have a bash at Diderot: La religieuse and Jacques le fataliste, perhaps.

I've also started considering what to read on holiday this year - perhaps having read some French eighteenth century stuff I'll read Clarissa. Roll on June the 6th when exams finish and I'll be able to read whatever I want, though...

21 April, 2007

Killing time at work

It's amazing how many semi-constructive ways there are to kill time on the internet. Between tagging my photos on flickr, Facebook, writing this blog and clicking 'random article' on Wikipedia, I've discovered LibraryThing, which allows you to catalogue your books online. It makes it very easy to catalogue books: you can search for them in different libraries including the Library of Congress, or on the various Amazons (.com, .co.uk, .de, etc); you can even edit your catalogue so it displays the correct covers for your books. It's also got a social aspect - like MySpace for readers - where you can comment on other people's collections, chat, or see whose collections overlap with your own.

I've only catalogued 80-odd books so far - partly by memory at work, partly from taking random books off the shelf today - but oddly, in the list of people who have the same books as me I've spotted two people I think I know. It's a small world...

17 April, 2007

Play it again, Max

The debate about the Classic FM countdown in the Guardian has led me to this very interesting speech by Peter Maxwell Davies about the way that classical music is perceived as inherently élitist. A wonderful defence of sixties democratic values in cultural education and the power of serious music.

Classical music is a most excellent way of making clear and meaningful to our human understanding our instinctive perceptions about the nature of time, and possibly, it gives us intimations of eternity.

16 April, 2007


So it looks like going to Heidelberg has fallen through. I'm very disappointed.

12 April, 2007

By the way

I hope no one finds the post below about leaving GU to be smug or self-righteous; it's not meant that way at all.

Thinking and reading

I'm reaching the point in the year where I become a grumpy hermit and do nothing but study: I've an essay on Adorno & Horkheimer and an essay on Candide due in by the end of April, and then I'll have to start revising for my exams at the end of May.

I'm finding giving up the threads a really positive thing; I think not being able to ramble on about trivialities almost constantly on chatty threads is giving me a lot more space to think more and to be more creative. During the first few days of giving up I noticed how I have got into the habit of automatically externalising every trivial thought: my reaction to anything noteworthy in my life at all was to frame it as a post on the threads. I'm slowly starting to lose that habit and am having more interesting thoughts as a consequence. This is helped because I still have lots of time at work to spend on the internet, so instead of posting I have been reading lots of articles and blogs (as well as the cricket over-by-over reports, admittedly) which is more stimulating than about 80% of the Guardian talkboards. I could happily live my life without ever seeing another debate on whether feminism means that council swimming pools should not have women-only sessions, or another debate on poverty that descends into a lengthy diatribe by someone who has never wanted for anything in their life on how poor people aren't really poor because they live in houses and not under Waterloo Bridge or in sub-Saharan Africa.

The dialectic of enlightenment is so difficult but is making me think a lot: interestingly, a lot of the stuff about instrumental reason chimes with the excellent documentary (documentary? Perhaps polemical TV essay would be a better description) about liberty called The trap that was on TV recently. The more I think I understand Adorno the less sure I am whether I agree with him or not, though; perhaps I'll have come to a conclusion when I finish my essay. [21]

I've also been reading a fair bit of poetry: I've now finished The Penguin book of Spanish Civil War verse and both of the Oasis collections of poetry about the Second World War. These were utterly fascinating; the intersecting point where literature meets history is one of my favourite things about reading (by the way Phil, if you are reading this, how are you getting on with Life and fate?). I think when I go to Barcelona later this year I'll read Homage to Catalonia, I'm currently finding the Spanish Civil War so fascinating.[22] [23] [24]

04 April, 2007

If I were a rich man

In the library I randomly picked up Sholom Aleichem's collection of stories Tevye's daughters, the stories that Fiddler on the roof was based on. They're very charming and folksy, and it's noticeable how much has stayed in the musical from the book: there's a passage where Tevye speculates on what he'd do if he was rich which is very close to If I were a rich man.

It's more a collection of short stories than a novel, although through the book we keep coming back to stories about Tevye and his daughters; the rest of the short stories are bits and bobs, some no more than folksy Jewish anecdotes, some really interesting about pre-WWI Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The narrative voice is delightfully chatty and fun. [20]

23 March, 2007

PG Wodehouse quote generator

A lovely way of whiling away five minutes here.

Halfway through

My reading in progress:

I'm struggling with Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of enlightenment, but I think with a bit of serious study I'll beat it yet.

Halfway through:
Rousseau's Reveries d'un promeneur solitaire
Grossman's Life and fate
Barbusse's Le feu

Just begun:
HAL Fisher's History of Europe

Need to reread:
Freud's Civilisation and its discontents
Montesquieu's Lettres persanes

Another book about reading

So many books, by a Mexican author called Gabriel Zaid. This was an interesting short little book, in which Gabriel Zaid argues that in focusing on bestsellers, the publishing industry has lost sight of the way that books are part of a public debate, or conversation, as he puts it. He has some lovely things to say about how cheap and successful the book is as a technology, but ultimately stops short of saying anything very radical about the publishing industry. [19]

I'm also reading four different poetry books at once at the moment - The Penguin book of Spanish civil war verse, The terrible rain, an anthology of WWII poetry, and the two Oasis collections of Second World War poetry. The Spanish civil war book also includes letters of the writers who fought in the International Brigades, and a fascinating introduction about the perception of the war as the poets' war. The Oasis books focus almost entirely on poems by combatants and are marvellous because of this; there's a certain amount of barrack room doggerel but some of the poems are really wonderful. I've decided to use my spare blog as a poetry blog, now that I have a bit more time to spend on such a thing (some of my readers may have realised I've stopped posting on GU indefinitely) so I may post some of my favourites over there.

21 March, 2007

The decline of a family

I finished Buddenbrooks a couple of weeks ago and am still mulling over bits of it and thinking about it intermittently. It was a wonderful, wonderful novel: I loved the way the historical change of the nineteenth century was shown, even though the novel never steps outside the immediate circle of the Buddenbrooks family, and the way that he talks about teeth all the time (I read somewhere that this was his attempt to mimic literarily Wagner's musical use of leitmotifs). I love the incredibly detailed descriptions of people's appearances and also the quiet, detached, ironic tone. [17]

This has prompted me to start reading Marcel Reich-Ranicki's Thomas Mann and his family, which has filled me in on what an insane egotist and neurotic Thomas Mann was. I'm never sure how I feel about this kind of literary gossip; there a part of me that feels that you shouldn't concern yourself with what an author is like, but with what he writes. The Heat reader manquée in me loves all the gossip and the details of the nasty letters Thomas Mann wrote to his brother and the insanely self-obsessed diary entries, though. [18]

Incidentally, Wikipedia has given me a link to the FBI's file on Thomas Mann. Which other writers are there with publically available files?

20 March, 2007

Writers' lectures

An article on the Guardian site has led me to this series of lectures by various famous authors, which look really interesting.

I've also discovered that Radio 4's In our time programme has an archive of old programmes which one can listen to (you need RealPlayer).

19 March, 2007

Madrid books

There's an enormous FNAC (I love the word FNAC) in Madrid so I bought Daniel Pennac's Comme un roman, Jorge Semprun's L'écriture ou la vie, and Madame Bovary in French, which I have only read in English so far. Then I instantly read the Pennac, which is a lovely book about reading, learning to read, and how people become book lovers. It finishes with his ten Rights of the reader, and a short essay on each, and was truly delightful. The rights of the reader are proposed to be

1. The right not to read.
2. The right to skip pages.
3. The right to not finish.
4. The right to reread.
5. The right to read anything.
6. The right to escapism.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to browse.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right to not defend your tastes

I agree with all of those... [15]

In the plane on the way out I finished Elisabeth Badinter's Dead End Feminism, which was madly interesting although I skipped some of the more theoretical bits (typical French feminist). It's a little book arguing for a more positive kind of feminism, in which the advances that feminism has already made are fully acknowledged, and where the abilities of women to shape their own destinies takes a more central role, moving the focus away slightly from male oppression and towards female power. I enjoyed it a lot although will have to reread it and write a fuller review at a later date, but definitely food for thought. [16]

It's my birthday!

... on May the second. Okay, it's still nearly two months away, but here's a list of books I'd be very glad to receive on that joyous day.

  1. The Penguin book of Spanish Civil War verse.
  2. The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso. Catalogue for the excellent show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
  3. Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, which was recommended to me by someone or other.
  4. Twentieth century German poetry: an anthology. Edited by Michael Hofmann. The long US one, not the very short Faber paperback.
  5. The biography of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen
  6. The English Auden

01 March, 2007

Light reading

A lovely light fluffy book about being a secret musicals fan, called What would Barbra do? Charming and silly and very readable, although it felt a bit like stretching a concept for a feature article into an entire book. The only quibble I have is that she spends a lot of time writing about very, very famous musicals: Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, even the Sound of Music. Surely the people reading her book will already be musicals fans and know a bit about Oklahoma!? It would have been more fun to hear about some of the madder musicals of the MGM golden age... [13]

Gah. Every time I try and put a link in this post it deletes everything following it. An exerpt from the book was published in the Guardian Weekend magazine a few weeks ago and is available here:


I also finished Alan Furst's Kingdom of shadows which I have now written about twice and had blogger delete it for me so I'm not writing it out again. Gah. [14]

Those of my readers who have been complaining...

...that it's 'cheating' to count short books like Candide as part of my 100 books target will be pleased to know that I'm currently three quarters of the way through Buddenbrooks and half way through Life and fate. Those two books together comprise a whopping 1,500 pages, people!

21 February, 2007

Bandes dessinées

The first three parts of Joann Sfar's Le chat du rabbin series of bandes dessinées, La bar-mitsva, Le Malka des lions, and L'exode. These were brilliant, funny, thoughtful books about an Algerian rabbi between the wars, narrated by his cat. The cat is very cat-like and smart-arsed - when the rabbi realises the cat can speak and agrees to instruct him for his bar-mitzva, the cat objects to Genesis by discussing Carbon-14. It's a lovely way of showiung the life of Sephardic jews, which I didn't really know about; a lot of Maghreb jews emigrated to Israel after it became a state. There's a lovely moment when the rabbi visits Paris and decides to try eating the most un kosher meal in the world: ham, blood pudding, snails, shellfish, swordfish. The drawings are just beautiful; the cat is very catty and the heat and slowness of Algeria comes across gorgeously. [10] [11] [12]

Edit: I've just seen it's available
in English, if anyone is interested. I'm also off to see Joann Sfar in discussion with Quentin Blake on Saturday at the Institut Français, which should be interesting.

13 February, 2007

Bedside table

Currently on my bedside table:

Grimm's fairy tales
Kapital volume 1
Christa Wolf's Kindheitsmuster
Joann Sfar's Chat du Rabbin bandes dessinées
Racine's Andromaque
Henri Barbusse's Le feu
Hannah Arendt's On revolution
Adorno's The culture industry
German poetry, 1910-1975 : an anthology edited by Michael Hamburger
Poésie : 1946-1967 by Philippe Jaccottet
Literary theory by Terry Eagleton
Seven types of ambiguity by William Empson

12 February, 2007

More course books

Candide, which is brilliant, but I had already read in English (I had a short stage of reading all the short but intellectual books I could find). And Nietzsche's On the use and abuse of history for life which I'm not sure I understand yet. I also have it in German as my tutor said he is one of the greatest German prose writers, but whether I'll get round to reading it... [8] [9]

11 February, 2007

Human nature

An interesting pair of course books last weekend: Rousseau's Discours sur l'inégalité and Freud's Civilisation and its discontents. Interesting because they both draw similar conclusions about human nature, namely that social problems stem from the conflict between the anti-social nature of humanity (in Freud's case, the difficulties that arise from primal family conflicts between father and son, or brother and brother) when humans start to live together. [6] [7]

My lecturer claims that Rousseau is the most important writer in Western culture between St Paul and Karl Marx. There's a claim to live up to...

08 February, 2007

Oh dear oh dear

I seem to have accidentally bought rather a lot of books in the last week.

Yesterday in Waterstone's second hand dept:

Echoes down the corridor, a collection of Arthur Miller's essays.
Under my skin and Walking in the shade, the first two volumes of Doris Lessing's autobiography.
The photo book, a little fat book with photos by lots of different famous photographers and a short description of each one.
Thomas Mann and his family by Marcel Reich-Ranicki

From the library sale (it's iniquitous how many good books they sell off for pennies)

Six days: how the 1967 war shaped the Middle East by Jeremy Bowen. Hardback, and in perfect condition.
Life: a users manual by Georges Perec
Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca

These were all in good condition and were being sold off at ten p each, buy one get one free. Now I don't have any objection to the libraries selling off old crime thrillers or 'family sagas' (those books with a bad watercolour of a working class street on and a pretty woman in the foreground who will be Womanly But Strong throughout the books, coping heroically with the Trials and Tribulations Of Life through the support and love of the Closely Knit Community around her) - these are books which readers read once and then move on to a different book.

But for the libraries to throw away (after all, the sales don't recoup any of the price of the book) history books, poetry books and classics - books which are expensive and will be used repeatedly for a long time - is really terrible. My sister worked in a library in one of the London inner city boroughs, where presumably they didn't have an unlimited budget, and they discarded books if they were 'tatty'. Never mind if they were useful for schoolchildren, students, anyone interested in looking things up; they didn't look as nice as the shiny copies of the Trinny and Susannah TV programme tie-in book or a nice Nigella Lawson cookbook - twenty recipes, each adorned with several large and glossy pictures of the author in quasi-erotic poses. After all, the most important thing in a public library is that the shelves look as attractive as those of your local Waterstones! It makes my blood boil.

From Amazon Germany and Amazon France

Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben by Friedrich Nietzsche
Das Unbehagen in der Kultur by Sigmund Freud
Discours sur l'inégalité by Rousseau, all course books, and two poetry anthologies:
Poèmes à dire: une anthologie de poésie contemporaine francophone and Pièces détachées: une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd'hui.

Ok. That's enough books now for a good long while. I have run out of bookshelves! (see below)

Also, I have just found a blog I started in 2004, did one post on, and then forgot about. What can I use it for, I wonder? Suggestions on a postcard...

04 February, 2007

More bookshelves

No, I'm not bored of this yet.

Kitchen 'shelf' (top of the microwave):

Novels, in the sitting room. Top half:

The tottering stack on top is children's books.

Bottom half (I couldn't get far enough away to get the whole thing in). Note E.'s small part-shelf at the bottom:

Study bookcase: French and German books, linguistics, history, philosophy, feminism and politics:


Because I'm so pleaased with our new digital camera, here are some pictures of my bookshelves:

New little bookshelf in the bedroom. I was very pleased that the poetry books precisely fitted on it and then I remembered how much poetry is still at mum's.

One of the sitting room bookshelves. Literary criticism, a few books about music, and reference books. The incredibly ugly software manuals aren't mine:

See my other photos on Flickr and the strangely fascinating bookshelves pool, which I could look at for hours.

29 January, 2007


A charming and rather surprising novel by Thomas Mann, Royal Highness. This was delightful: set in a comic operetta sort of principality in late 19th century Germany, it's a fairytale-ish sort of plot about the regeneration of the declining society when the Prince falls in love with a modern, liberated American heiress. Being by Thomas Mann, of course, it's full of gentle irony and reflection about the islated nature of royalty, but is nonetheless delightful. [4]

At the other end of the fairytale spectrum, Angela Carter's The bloody chamber was also fun: modern feminist retellings of fairy tales (without all the worthy seventies feminism that implies - awful memories of leaden retelling where all the princes are wusses and the princesses ride motorbikes). These were sexy and stylish and fun. I was particularly pleased by the sheer catness of the cat narrator of Puss in Boots. [5]

24 January, 2007

French and German poetry

I've been reading two shortish Faber collections of poetry in the last week: the Faber book of 20th century German poetry, edited by Michael Hofmann, and 20th century French poems, edited by Stephen Romer. Both in translation, as these were the small, portable books! - the dual language editions are all very long. Both were interesting: I know nothing about 20th century poetry not written in English, or very little, anyway, although I like some of Brecht's poetry and have read a little of Paul Celan. Interesting reading the two side by side: the French poets seem highly surreal while the Germans (post-Brecht) are incredibly concrete and realist, using a very everyday sort of imagery and simple (as far as one can tell from the translation) pared down language and form. The exception being Celan, who is beautifully, eerily elusive. I must read some of him in German as it seems he is pretty much untranslatable. [2] [3]

NB if any of my readers are stuck for a birthday present for me (just over four months now, chaps!) I would be very grateful for this book. See also my Amazon wishlist...

15 January, 2007

Christmas book tokens, hooray!

I bought Christopher Booker's The seven basic plots: why we tell stories and the Bloodaxe anthology Being alive which is a follow up to a previous anthology called Staying alive.

Books I want to buy this year: I want more art and photography books, if I can find ones that aren't too expensive. I'd like to buy a bit more poetry, particularly contemporary poetry and poetry in French and German.

08 January, 2007

And here we go again

So, the first book of the new year is Sebastian Faulks's Human traces. Like the other Sebastian Faulk novels I've read, it's essentially bonkbuster for radio 3 listeners. It's a novel based around the period on which Freud was making his discoveries: the two central characters are 'mad-doctors', researching mental illness in a sanatorium in Switzerland. Lots of research which Faulks shows off at every opportunity (no chapter is complete without a conversation in which someone starts 'Let me see if I can explain this more clearly...' followed by three pages of research). Bizarrely, although most of Freud's colleagues are mentioned by name and even appear in the story, he shys away from mentioning Freud by name. It's very odd, and I can't see any reason for it, since he is happy to mention, say, Charcot, and anyone who has read a tiny little bit about Freud will have heard of Charcot. Still, it was absorbing and not too insulting to my intelligence, even if very little happened. A nice distraction from the essays. [1]

07 January, 2007

... and new year

So, here are my reading resolutions for this year.
  • Read 100 books
  • Read more in French and German
  • Read more about the French revolution, the European eighteenth century and the Enlightenment generally
  • German philosophy: read around my course. Get to grips with Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche
  • Read more Marx (again!) possibily even in German
  • Read more eighteenth century French lit
  • Concentrate on late 19th century and 20th century German writers
  • As a mini-project, try and read more European writing on the First World War
I'll try and do a best of 2006 blog at some point soonish.

Happy New Year to my four readers! Have a great year.

Old year...

So, I didn't make it to a hundred books, but I read eighty-two, which I think is a good start. And that included two longish reading blocks.

The last three books of the year were the truly excellent The middle parts of fortune by Frederic Manning, an Australian who served as a private in the British army in WWI. It's an excellent novel about the experience of war in the trenches and particularly interesting as it's written from the point of view of a man who could have been an officer but preferred to stay a private. The central character, Bourne, is constantly resisting a commission: in real life Manning was eventually made an officer but then narrowly escaped court martial after being drunk on duty. [80]

A Christmas treat to myself was a lovely Georgette Heyer novel The quiet gentleman which was like most Georgette Heyer novels: like a hot bath or some really expensive chocolate, not exactly trashy, but an indulgent treat that doesn't really do one any good at all. Also like most Georgette Heyer novels inasmuch as half an hour after reading it I couldn't have told you about any of the characters, or indeed anything that happened. [81]

The last was a present from ma, a collection of Germaine Greer's early writings called The madwoman's underclothes. Amusing and clever and witty, if occasionally rather silly (much like marvellous Germaine herself), and always very much of their time. [82]

Later edit - it's actually 83 books as I forgot to add a course book, Ludwig Feuerbach's The essence of Christianity. [83] Yay!

So, looking back at my literary resolutions, I haven't really kept any of them except the last: 'To avoid rereading children's books and trash and to read new worthwhile things instead'. The attempt to read a certain number of books has done me good, though, I think; I haven't succumbed to the temptation to mindlessly kill pages in the quest for 100 books, but have been quite focused on keeping reading, which I think is a good thing, on the whole.

I'm also pleased that I've kept on at this blog: it is good to have something more on the books I've read than just the date I read them (which is what I previously kept a record of). It also motivates me to read decent books and not trash - not that many people read this but it would annoy me to keep having to list a whole lot of rubbish...