27 January, 2009

Lists galore

The Modern Library, lists of 100 best fiction and 100 best non-fiction books. Two version of each list, one chosen by a panel of critics, the other voted for by readers.

The BBC's Big Read, 100 novels voted for by BBC audiences.

Time Magazine's all-time 100 novels published between 1923 and the present, chosen by Time's critics.

Top 100 books of all time, via the Guardian, 'as determined from a vote by 100 noted writers from 54 countries'.

The top 100 books, via the Telegraph - no explanation of how they were chosen.

Another Telegraph one, the 110 books that make up the perfect library.

This one is interesting: the most downloaded books from Project Gutenberg.

Waterstones' top 100 books of the twentieth century.

And in response to the male-centricity of most of the above, the top 100 books by women, although I can't find the link to the original.

1,000 books to read before you die

This is quite excellent for fans of pseudo-intellectual one-upmanship like me: the Guardian has said 'Pfeh!' to all the lists of 100 best books and created the list of a THOUSAND novels you must read in your lifetime. So obviously I have counted how many I have read and sneered a bit at their choices (it's badly researched enough that at least three books on there aren't even novels. It seems a bit much to compile a list like this and include books that, clearly, no one compiling the list has actually read) but I'm interested in why lists like this exist. Why do they sell newspapers? Or why do newspaper writers think they sell newspapers?


Reading: Elizabeth Ewing's History of twentieth century fashion.

Listening: I really enjoyed the R3 opera on Saturday, more than I'd expected to. Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice and for once it was available on the iPlayer. Also, lovely Tariq Ali on Private Passions.

Watching: slightly mad Clint movie Coogan's Bluff.

22 January, 2009

The virgin in the garden - A.S. Byatt

I was completely engrossed by this and read it in long gulps in a way I almost never do these days. This was a terrific novel: a twentieth century Charlotte Brontë novel, with downtrodden sisters marrying curates and brothers going mad and being led astray by religous nutjobs, not to mention the domineering father. And a sense of Yorkshire not just as moors and wilderness, but also in the solid provincial towns, which reminded me a lot of Shirley.

This is a bildungsroman, following the development of Frederica Potter, and has that great sixties frankness about sex (her first sex is 'neither nice nor nasty, more like incessant Tampax'). Frederica is, as I said in one of the comments previously, the kind of person I would have liked to be when I was 17: spiky and clever, unpopular but not caring about that, and that too reminds me of the Brontës and their stern and spiky heroines (Lucy Snowe, Helen Graham). She's also the only member of her family not cowed by her insane aggressive father, and the family bits are particularly fun: I have a special fondness for mad shouty families in novels.

But as well as being about Frederica on the cusp of adulthood, it's also about a particular period in time: the moment when England moves from post-war austerity towards the colourful decadence of the sixties. It's all set around Queen Elizabeth's coronation and the central event is a play about Elizabeth I put on to mark the occasion. The play is a marvellous anarchic event full of seduction and betrayal: the relations between the different participants become very similar to the goings-on of the real Elizabethan court.

The bit of the book I felt I hadn't really grasped were the weird spiritual 'experiments' carried out by Frederica's brother and his companion the unhinged science teacher. I shall have to reread at some point in the future to see if I get it then. [5]

21 January, 2009


This is pretty cool. Click on the President to see a word cloud of the inaugural address; the words highlighted in yellow are the ones used more than in the average inaugural speech.
And this is a pretty good summing up of the departing President.
(Picture from the Guardian)


Reading: I'm engrossed in A.S. Byatt's The virgin in the garden, which is like a sort of twentieth century Charlotte Brontë.

Listening: Still having a kind of music block. Still, I have student stand-by tickets to the Royal Ballet's La Bayadère tomorrow, which should be good: it's not a ballet I know.

Watching: nearing the end of Deadwood season 3, and already sad that it's nearly finished. At the weekend I watched most of Cromwell, with lovely lovely Alec Guinness and Richard Harris, and the recent Bond film, which featured some excellent haircuts.

18 January, 2009

Le deuxième sexe - introduction

I think I'm going to really enjoy this book. De Beauvoir's tone is so intelligent and tart, and her writing is so logical and clever.

The introduction starts by asking what is a woman? and comes to the conclusion that women are primarily defined negatively, as not-men:
La femme a des ovaires, un utérus; voilà des conditions singulières qui
l'enferment dans sa subjectivité; on dit volontiers qu'elle pense avec ses
glandes. L'homme oublie superbement que son anatomie comporte aussi des
hormones, des testicules.

and she quotes Aristotle: «La femelle est femelle en vertu d'un certain manque de qualités». So then she talks about the concept of the other and the way in which humans find Otherness in different groups - les Juifs, les Noirs. But women aren't like ethnic groups - Jews aren't Others to other Jews (or at least, not because of their Jewishness). Women live alongside men, in equal numbers to men, but are still seen as Other by those men. In this regard, she compares women with the proletariat: a group which exists alongside the bourgeoisie, and have existed as long as they have.

If you want to read her in English, there's an english translation of Le deuxième sexe at the Marxist Internet Archive. I'm reading her in french because, well, why not stretch my brain for once. Also I read somewhere that the translation doesn't do her justice.

16 January, 2009

Why is it

... that I'm constantly browsing through bookshops making mental notes of things I want to buy, but when I actually get given book tokens, I haven't got a clue?

15 January, 2009

From Tarabas: a guest on earth

The war became his home. The war became his wide and bloody home. He moved from one sector to another. He came to peaceful territory, set villages on fire, left the debris of smaller and larger towns behind him, and mourning women, orphaned children, beaten, hanged, and murdered men. He turned about, learnt the suspense of flight before the enemy, took last-minute revenge on supposed traitors, destroyed bridges, roads, railways, obeyed and commanded, and all with equal relish. He was the bravest officer in his regiment. He led patrols with the caution and cunning of a beast of prey out for booty, and with the confident daring of a foolish man to whom his life means nothing. He drove his timorous peasants to the attack with pistol and whip, but fired the brave ones with his own example. -He was first into everything. In the art of invisible motion, when, masked by trees, shrubs, or undergrowth, covered by darkness or wrapped in the mists of dawn, he would steal upon barbed-wire barricades to the undoing of the enemy, he was unequalled. He never needed to look at any map; his whetted senses divined the secrets of every territory. Muffled and distant sounds came clearly to his ears. His watchful eye caught every suspicious movement. His certain hand went out, shot, and never missed its mark, held what it grasped, came down without mercy upon backs and faces, shut to a fist with cruel knuckles, but opened readily to the pressure of comradeship, answering it with warmth and steel.

Joseph Roth, trans. Winifred Katzin

12 January, 2009

This is a lovely website (well, once you've worked out the slightly fiddly design). Pictures of abandoned buildings from around Europe. I particularly love these photos of a disused hospital near Liège, above.


Reading: La Princesse de Clèves; Turgenev's Fathers and sons; lots of depressing articles about the situation in Gaza.

Listening: I've hardly been listening to any music recently. Turandot on Thursday at the ROH: I'd forgotten quite how horrible the story is, and I hate all the 'Eastern' twiddly bits, but some of the music was gorgeous.

Watching: Cradle will rock on DVD from the library. I loved this: it was so sweet and heartwarming. Also, practically a musical, sort of. And Susan Sarandon wears fantastic hats.

09 January, 2009

Philby: the spy who betrayed a generation

I have a sort of minor obsession with Philby, due to early exposure to John le Carré, I think. This was a fairly boringly-written book (I had to keep reminding myself to focus on the page) but quite hilarious in places. The intelligence services seem to have been a near-farcical shambles from their inception till they rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Philby scandal.

The focus that all the writers (and John le Carré, in the introduction) put on betrayal is interesting, though. I find it difficult to get too worked up about betrayal in the context of the secret services: the way they function relies on betrayal, so clearly betrayal is not the problem - the problem is betraying the wrong side. This is sort of prodded at when they point out that Philby was a double agent at the time when he was probably giving most material to the USSR, which made it harder to identify him as a traitor. As far as the British intelligence services were concerned, Philby was acting the double agent, passing innocuous material to the Soviets, and passing himself off as a traitor for the benefit of Soviet intelligence. What was actually happening was that Philby was passing bogus information to the British and genuine secrets to the USSR. So it's highly problematic to claim that the worst thing about Philby was the betrayal: his whole traning was in betrayal and deceit.

There's a bit in Tinker tailor soldier spy where the traitor says "I have always believed the secret services are the only real expression of a nation's character." It comes from the traitor but it's something that George Smiley, who unmasks him, also agrees with; and in fact John le Carre said something similar in a recent BBC interview with Mark Lawson. I'm bemused by this fetishisation of the secret world. I can appreciate the interest that writers have in it: secrecy and betrayal make interesting stories. But the idea that the secret services are in some way an indicator of the state of the nation seems very strange: the view of an insider, maybe? [2]

08 January, 2009

The foundling - Georgette Heyer

So I started this year as I finished the last one - with a totally undemanding Georgette Heyer novel. Heyer is very nice as an occasional indulgence, though: she manages to write essentially fluffy books which don't insult my intelligence. This is harder (or at least, rarer) than one might imagine. (The last chick-lit book I picked up I had to put aside because it was so full of inanities and anachronisms, to the point where my irritated inner monologue was preventing me from actually taking in any of the book.)

Anyway, The foundling was slightly different from the usual Georgette Heyer model, since the story was not a love story on the Pride and prejudice model, but instead the story of a small, mild-mannered young Duke who becomes increasingly frustrated by the benevolent autocracy of his servants and runs away to find adventure, gets kidnapped, gets embroiled with a beautiful but moronic girl and a runaway schoolboy, and proves surprisingly resourceful at escaping from all of these entanglements. Very charming and slightly farcical. [1]

06 January, 2009

...and this year

So, my reading-related resolutions for 2009 are:

- read more poetry (again!)
- read more in French (again!)
- keep trying to get rid of books, tactically. The end goal is a collection of books which I really love, not a collection containing every single book I might some day want to read
- try and read a bit more German, maybe. I read so slowly in German that I find it really hard.

Some actual books I want to get around to/finally finish this year:

- Middlemarch, George Eliot
- La chartreuse de Parme, Stendhal
- Le deuxième sexe, Simone de Beauvoir (I might try this a chapter a week over the year)
- Capital, Karl Marx

I also want to fill in some of the vast gaping holes in my knowledge of film, catch more art exhibitions, and keep this blog more up to date.

Last year...

So, 80 books in all. My favourites were:

Shirley, Charlotte Bronte
A place of greater safety, Hilary Mantel
The book of Daniel, E L Doctorow
The quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf
Brother of the more famous Jack, Barbara Trapido
L'assommoir, Émile Zola

The feminine middlebrow novel, Nicola Humble
On photography, Susan Sontag
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards
Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity, Elizabeth Wilson

Looking at my resolutions for 2008, I seem to have failed abjectly. Reading more poetry and reading more in French will definitely roll over for another year, I think.

05 January, 2009

This is wonderful; I'm so sorry I haven't seen it before. Erin McKean also writes the very charming Dress a day blog, which I'm very fond of, but I think her point about how we don't need to be bound by the limitations of paper publishing is an excellent one which isn't made enough.

Catching up - the end of 2008

So, I'm caving in. I will try and do a few longer posts on these, and this is going to be the year when I blog everything as soon as I read it, so I won't get so behind...

Dead souls - Gogol [62]
Under the net - Iris Murdoch [63]
Landlocked - Doris Lessing [64]
The four-gated city - Doris Lessing [65]
Those happy golden years - Laura Ingalls Wilder [66]
The first four years - Laura Ingalls Wilder [67]
The age of innocence - Edith Wharton [68]
Bread givers - Anzia Yezierska [69]
Ragtime - EL Doctorow [70]
The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte - Karl Marx [71]
An experiment in love - Hilary Mantel [72]
Shirley - Charlotte Brontë [73]
The professor - Charlotte Brontë [74]
City of darkness, city of light - Marge Piercy [75]
Northern lights - Philip Pullman [76]
The subtle knife - Philip Pullman [77]
The amber spyglass - Philip Pullman [78]
Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban [79]
Faro's daughter - Georgette Heyer [80]

01 January, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to anyone still reading this despite the decreasing frequency of updates. The above is Daniel Barenboim, who this morning conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in their annual New Year's concert, for the first time. The above photo is not the Vienna Phil though; you can tell because women appear to be involved, which is a bit beyond the pale in Vienna.

Anyway, everything will change this year: I'm going to do lots more blogging and read lots more books. So watch this space!