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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? 😀

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! 🙂

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A less than idyllic adventure… #readingmuriel2018

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Robinson by Muriel Spark

The start of the year has seen quite an online flurry about the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the birth of the great Scottish author Muriel Spark. There’s a big exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (which I really wish I could get to) and lovely blogger HeavenAli is holding a readalong of Spark’s work throughout the year. The structure of this is really laid-back and so somehow I’ve managed to actually get involved in a reading challenge and read a Spark book! During the first three months the focus is on Spark’s early novels, and as I had read her debut effort, “The Comforters, I went for the second one, “Robinson”. And what a fascinating and thought-provoking read it turned out to be.

The title is, of course, a reference to Daniel Defoe’s great novel “Robinson Crusoe”; but this book is something very different to that classic work. Spark’s novel is narrated by one January Marlow, a young widow who’s been stranded on the island of Robinson after a plane crash. Marooned with her are Tom Wells, a rather slippery character, and Johnnie Waterford, an entertaining young Dutchman with a wonderfully eccentric way of speaking; these three are the only survivors of the crash, and they’re rescued by the island’s owner and inhabitant, Robinson himself.

As the three recover from their injuries, they discover that the set-up on the island is a little odd. Robinson is a bit of a strange one, as despite being quite well off he’s chosen to isolate himself with only a young boy, Miguel, as company. Apart from the occasional visit by pomegranate sellers, no-one visits Robinson (either the person or the island) and so he’s making a considerable personal sacrifice by tolerating and accommodating the sometimes fractious visitors…

I had issues with the cover of my edition – and ended up having to deploy strategic post-its. I don’t know which of the characters this was mean to be, but it certainly didn’t seem like *any* of them to me…

Skilfully, Spark gradually reveals her characters during the narrative and all is not, of course, straightforward. Wells, a bit of a wide boy who runs a dodgy magazine and sells dubious lucky charms, shirks the chores and feigns illness; Johnnie turns out to be related to Robinson and there may be more to him than meets the eye, too. As for January, her rather eccentric life story gradually reveals itself, while she sees parallels between her companions and her family members. An added element in the story is religious conflict; Robinson is violently against all forms of false faith and cant, whereas January is a recent convert to Catholicism and happy to teach Miguel how to do his rosary.

But tensions come to a head and murder happens; blood is strewn over the island again, Robinson cannot be found, and the remaining survivors must deal with the suspicion between them until the pomegranate boats arrive to rescue them. Add in blackmail, guns, threats and hidden passages and you have quite a scintillating mix!

I’ve read a lot of Spark pre-blog, but somehow “Robinson” slipped under my radar at the time; which is a shame, but at least I’ve got to read it now. It’s a curious mix at times, with funny and entertaining elements set against darker, more unsettling plot strands. Certainly, although it’s not sensible to conflate author and character, I can’t help seeing Spark reflected in January, with both having a son, both being authors and both having recently converted to the Catholic faith. That latter element is strong in the book, with the interesting juxtaposition of Robinson’s viewpoint, January’s simple faith and her scarily obsessive brother-in-law’s rather weird fixation on the more extreme aspects of the religion.

Spark and son

There were plenty of twists and turns, too, and the story was extremely gripping (although I confess I *did* suss one particularly large plot twist well before the end of the book). It’s a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well. There is plenty of wry and dry humour, and although Spark is channelling Defoe, Robinson is no Crusoe and Miguel is no Friday. The setting, however, is somewhat idyllic, even if the events are not, and it’s fascinating to see January’s recording of events at the time (in the journal she keeps) and her thoughts on the island looking back on her experience (as we know all along that she will survive and return to civilization). Spark’s prose, too, is just wonderful, evoking the setting and the characters beautifully, and really bringing the island of Robinson to life. I was particularly taken with Johnnie (whose true nature is never completely revealed) and his wonderfully dreadful use of the English language had me chuckling away all though the book.

So – “Robinson” was a real winner for me, and proof (if I needed it) of what an inventive, original and just classy author Muriel Spark was. There’s suspense, meditations on the human spirit, adventure, a marvellously evoked setting, humour and a wonderful ping-pong playing cat – what more do you need of a book? 🙂

Loving my local library…

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Despite its inability to stock certain of the more obscure books (ahem!) I want to read, I really do love my local library! A case in point is a couple of titles I recently brought home with me. I *am* trying very hard not to buy any more books just at the moment, but there were a couple I wanted very much to explore:

“The Sandcastle” is of course the result of Liz’s Great Iris Murdoch Readalong. I’ve been wondering if I should join in and I was intrigued by the sound of this one so I decided to borrow a copy rather than doing my usual clickety-click buying thing… I’ve dipped into the first chapter and am interested – so I may actually read my first Murdoch!

As for “Flaneuse”, I’ve loved the sound of this one since I first heard about it; the temptation to buy was there also, but as the library stocked it I reserved it. The first couple of pages are marvellous – but as I’m currently in the middle of Muriel Spark’s “Robinson” both of these will have to wait. Very frustrating…. I shall just have to give up sleep!

The Further Exploits of the Queen of the Oxfam Shops

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No, that isn’t the title of a recent read – and lest anyone thinks I’ve gone rather arrogant, I should point out that I didn’t take that moniker upon myself! One of my lovely friends on the LibraryThing Virago group (you know who you are!) jokingly dubbed me that recently when we were having a conversation about Penelope Lively. I’ve only ever read Lively’s children’s novels and so another Viragoite urged me to get some of her work. I knew I’d seen some in local charity shops – hence my new title! And when have I ever turned down the challenge to track down a book? However, I tracked down more than I had anticipated… This is the pile I came home with and this is the story!

Off I trotted into the Big Town, and it turned out there *were* quite a few Penelope Lively books in the charity shops. I decided to be restrained and selective and picked out two I thought appealed, having a good read of the back blurbs, and they were only £1 each:

I remember reading about “The Photograph” when it came out and liking the sound of it. As for “City of the Mind” I have a thing about architecture and as this one is based around a London architect it was an obvious choice.

So I did think I was doing quite well with the restraint thing, until I hit the Oxfam… They had no Lively fiction but did have one of her books of autobiography:

Then I had a look at the general fiction and lo and behold! A Tove Jansson!!

Simon T at Stuck in a Book has always sung her praises and was encouraging me only recently to read some of her work – so grabbing this was a no brainer!

I should have left the Oxfam then, but I had one of those feelings you get when you’re on a book search…. I’d been looking at my Amazon wish list and one of the books on it was The Portable Hannah Arendt. The book is one I’ve wanted to pick up for a while, and although it’s not over expensive online, when you add on postage the price shoots up. Arendt is an intriguing woman, and she floated back into my thoughts because my friend H, who I saw last week, is very keen on her work – which reminded me I wanted this book. And oddly in the Oxfam I felt the pull of the philosophy section (not where I usually go) and there, sitting on the shelf waiting for me, was this:

Serendipity or what? You tell me – but it cost slightly less than the online copies and there’s no postage on top *and* it’s in excellent condition (important, because I’m so fed up with buying misdescribed books!) Phew!

So I came out of the Oxfam with a lighter purse (not by too much, though) and a much heavier bag. What happened next in The Works I refuse to take any blame for…. I had to go in there anyway for some stationery. And they have boxes and boxes and boxes of books for £1 at the moment (some even less). So it would have been foolish not to browse, no? These are what I found:

Uncle Silas was £1 and sounds creepy classic fun. The Spark was also £1 and is a Virago I don’t have. The Emma Tennant was 59p (59p!!!) – for a Canongate Classic!! I read Tennant in the 1970s/1980s but can recall absolutely nothing about her work, so this is a good chance to rediscover her.

I blame my friends on the Virago group – totally – my book habit may be a little out of control but they can’t say they haven’t encouraged me!! 🙂

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