19 December, 2007
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. 
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. 
15 December, 2007
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.  
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.  
And another German writer, another short book, and another recommendation from a friend, Stefan Zweig's Twilight, which was charming and sad. 
06 December, 2007
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). 
10 November, 2007
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. 
28 October, 2007
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... 
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. 
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.  
16 October, 2007
L'éducation sentimentale 
George Steiner's The death of tragedy 
Billy Collins's Questions about angels 
Michael Hamburger's Selected poems 
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 
Sheila Rowbotham's Dreams and dilemmas, a lovely collection of articles 
The Spare Rib reader 
A study of the poetry of Keith Douglas, by William Scammell 
The night watch, by Sarah Waters 
Flight without end, by Joseph Roth 
The roaring nineties, by Joseph Stiglitz 
A collection of children's wartime and holocaust diaries, collected by Laurel Holliday 
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
19 September, 2007
30 August, 2007
29 August, 2007
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.  
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. 
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. 
14 August, 2007
10 August, 2007
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.). 
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.
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
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. 
19 July, 2007
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.
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
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
03 July, 2007
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. 
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. 
29 June, 2007
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.  
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. 
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. 
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. 
19 June, 2007
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)
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
07 June, 2007
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
The devil wears Prada 
Martin Walker's The cold war 
Les liaisons dangereuses 
Dreams and dilemmas, collected essays and early writings by Sheila Rowbotham 
The selected poems of Yehuda Amichai 
The certificate, by Isaac Bashevis Singer 
Inventing God, by Nicholas Mosley 
15 May, 2007
10 May, 2007
09 May, 2007
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
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
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
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.
27 April, 2007
26 April, 2007
23 April, 2007
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
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
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
12 April, 2007
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. 
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.  
04 April, 2007
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. 
23 March, 2007
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.
Rousseau's Reveries d'un promeneur solitaire
Grossman's Life and fate
Barbusse's Le feu
HAL Fisher's History of Europe
Need to reread:
Freud's Civilisation and its discontents
Montesquieu's Lettres persanes
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
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. 
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
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
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... 
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. 
- The Penguin book of Spanish Civil War verse.
- The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso. Catalogue for the excellent show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
- Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, which was recommended to me by someone or other.
- Twentieth century German poetry: an anthology. Edited by Michael Hofmann. The long US one, not the very short Faber paperback.
- The biography of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen
- The English Auden
02 March, 2007
01 March, 2007
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. 
21 February, 2007
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
Grimm's fairy tales
Kapital volume 1
Christa Wolf's Kindheitsmuster
Joann Sfar's Chat du Rabbin bandes dessinées
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
11 February, 2007
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
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
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:
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:
29 January, 2007
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. 
24 January, 2007
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
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
07 January, 2007
- 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
Happy New Year to my four readers! Have a great year.
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. 
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. 
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. 
Later edit - it's actually 83 books as I forgot to add a course book, Ludwig Feuerbach's The essence of Christianity.  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...