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November and its challenges – where did it all go…..?

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November was a *very* busy month with reading events, and I had lots of plans – as I revealed in this post… I’m not sure it has gone entirely as I intended, although I *have* ticked the box for each one. But some were read before November, and I did have a bit of a slump in the middle of the month when work was ridiculously busy and then I had a hideous head cold (HOW! How could I catch a cold when I have basically been wearing a mask since March??????) I found it very hard to settle while the American Election drama was taking place, too – so much seemed to hinge on it and thank goodness for the result. Anyway, this is the small pile of books read during November:

Although it’s a smaller pile than I usually feature at the end of the month, there are some really interesting titles and authors in there. The Gallic Revolutionary Women books are something I’m covering for Shiny New Books. There are items from some of my bookish subscriptions, Penguin Moderns, crime, Atwood and Barthes! I did enjoy all the books I read, and there will be a review of the Barthes coming up this week; I will count that as a Non-Fiction November read as it’s definitely non-fiction and was definitely read in November! 😀

Looking forward to December, with all the stress and strain and confusion in the world at the moment, it’s going to be a difficult one I feel. So I plan to try to keep the reading simple and go with things I really want to read, and which will give me some escapism from rotten reality. One of the main issues I’ve been having is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of book piles lying around unread, so I had a bit of a tidy up and coralled a lot of the pending titles onto a little bookshelf which now looks like this:

This has made me feel a lot calmer and now I feel I can just pick what I fancy off the shelves and enjoy following my reading mojo. To look more specifically at the options, here are the possibles in the various rows…

The top shelf has some beautiful books sent by BL Publishing – Sci Fi Classics, Crime Classics and Women Writers. Any of these would be perfect comfort reads for a long month. Then there are subscription books from Fum d’Estampa, Renard Press and Sulunary Editions – I want to read them all at once…. There are review copies of Chekhov and Penguin classic sci fi, all of which look and sound lovely. And at the end, my collection of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence. I’ve wanted to re-read these for ages, and of course December is the time to do it. Should I? Could I?

Here’s the middle shelf! There are some incredibly beautiful NYRB editions here, and all of them are screaming for attention. Then there are some lovely books that wonderful people have sent me (thank you Olga Zilberbourg and QC Fiction). I still have a little stack of unread Fitzcarraldos, which I could read now, or hang onto in case Lizzy and I decide to do another Fitzcarraldo Fortnight! And I have a huge pile of Mike Walmer’s lovely editions to catch up on – such wonderful titles!!

The bottom shelf is more of a mish-mash, with a number of books which have been lying around for a while with no real connection between them. Again, all are interesting and would be good reads – it’s just a case of deciding! 😀

However, decisions are a little more complex thanks to the arrival of some new titles this week:

Some are review copies, and some are purchases (thank you Blackwells and Hive!) However, the arrival of five new Penguin Great Ideas editions has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works as far as my reading plans are concerned!

I had intended to read all 120(!!!!) in order, although after the first set of 20 I only have a piecemeal collection. These five were the ones I most wanted from the new set, and I got them at very reasonable prices. And now I’m thinking – as I don’t own the whole lot, would it be cheating to read them in whatever order took my fancy?? Do I actually *need* to read them in the order 1 to 120, bearing in mind that that wouldn’t be chronological beause each set of 20 starts with an ancient classic and ends with a more modern work? So I could maybe just read whichever one I wanted when the mood takes me….?

So what to you think? *Is* that cheating? Should I just read the Great Ideas in whatever order suits my reading mojo? And which of these books appeals most? Really, I don’t know what to pick up next!! ;D

November challenges – where to start….

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October was a really good bookish month for me, despite my feeling a little sluggish about reading at the beginning of the month. I suddenly got over that feeling during the 1956 Club and really hit my stride – these are the books I finished during the month, and they were all amazing reads in one way or another. I’m still playing catch up with reviews, and some of these will feature either on Shiny New Books or as part of November challenges – and that’s what I want to think about here!

October’s reading! Quite a good pile – I hadn’t finished the Morley when I took the image, but I will have by tomorrow! 😀

November is a month absolutely bursting with challenges – I can think of five off the top of my head and there are four I would definitely like to try to take part in. Unfortunately, I think Australian Literature Month will not make it into my schedule this year, which is a shame. But you can’t do them all. However, first up is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Now, I love Atwood and I never need an excuse to read her – she’s definitely one of my favourite authors and I’m always delighted to pick up one of her books. I had a rummage round my shelves, and found that there were a couple of works calling to me; oddly enough, not her fictions, but her poetry collection (which I’ve dipped into before) and also a recent arrival in the form of an essay collection.

Well, it looks like I have three choices there, doesn’t it? Ahem. Spot the deliberate mistake…. I gaily sent off for “On Writers and Writing”, and when it arrived realised I already owned it under the title of “Negotiating with the Dead”. D’oh…. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve read it or not (it would definitely be pre-blog if I have, when I wasn’t keeping good records)! Even if I have, I would probably be happy to revisit this one – I’ll see how things go!

Next up is Novella November; this is a challenge which has a bit of a chequered history, but this year is being hosted by Bookish Beck and 746 Books! I love a good novella, although there are only a couple of potential titles knocking about which are these two:

Both are slim volumes I’ve had hanging around for a while and which would be ideal to pick up during this month. And interestingly, one of these feeds into the next appealing book challenge for November: German Literature Month 10, hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

This is a reading event I enjoy very much, and a dig about in the TBR revealed these titles which appeal at the moment:

Yes, there’s the Roth novella again, together with two intriguing works I’ve again had hanging around on the TBR for quite a while (and if my memory serves me correctly, “Dreamers” actually came my way via Lizzy!) Any of these would be wonderful reading. However, there’s one last challenge for the month which has fairly mind-numbing implications because of the choice of works I would have – and that is:

Nonfiction November is an event which is tailor-made for me, because I’m increasingly coming to read more non-fiction; I’ve always loved that kind of writing, and the term embraces such a wide range of books that the choices are endless. At least, they are when it comes to my TBR…. For a start, both Atwoods and two of the German choices count as non-fiction. Then, a casual rummage through Mount TBR revealed to me just how many non-fictions works of all kinds I have unread. I mean, there’s this pile to start with:

Some gorgeous Fitzcarraldos, which take in all kinds of non-fiction writing; a very strange book on Paris; Chateaubriand’s memoirs; and “Night Walking” from Verso (don’t even get me started on the piles of Verso books lurking unread). Happy to pick up any of these right now.

This is what you might loosely call my nature reading pile – mostly fairly chunky, all very appealing and I could easily spend a month or so just on these.

Then there’s the loosely grouped Scottish books, mainly focusing on Edinburgh (yes, I know there’s a Colette in there, but Massie is a Scottish author). I *really* want to pick up the Silent Traveller right now. There are a lot more Scottish books lurking round the house, but that’s a project on which I’m a little scared to embark in case it completely consumes me.

Thing is, this is only scratching the surface. The TBR is *awash* with non-fiction books – I hadn’t quite realised how many till I had a good rummage – and so I’m vaguely overwhelmed and not quite sure where to begin. Knowing me, I shall just fling myself at the piles with wild abandon and grab the first book which comes to hand – wish me luck! There is also a potential distraction looming in the form of a *very* interesting looking documentary coming up on BBC4 soon – look out for more about this on the Ramblings!  And do let me know if you’re taking on any of these November challenges yourself! ;D

Continuing with the Novellas – curiouser and curiouser….

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The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

When Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly offered to pass on to me a Francoise Sagan book she’d finished with, I was naturally delighted! She’d mentioned “The Heart-Keeper” on one of the videos (have a look at her YouTube channel here) and I must admit I was intrigued. This is a later Sagan and one I’d not heard of, so when it arrived I was keen to read it. What I didn’t anticipate was quite how odd I would find it…

THK is set outside of what I would consider normal Sagan territory in that it takes place in Hollywood of the 1960s. The narrator is Dorothy Seymour, a scriptwriter in her mid 40s. Driving home one night with current boyfriend Paul, they nearly run over a young man who runs in front of their car. They take the young man, Lewis, back to Dorothy’s house and somehow, after several weeks, he is still there. That one act of unprovoked kindness brings him into Dorothy’s life, not to be removed.

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There are of course the usual rumours about a young man living with an older woman. But the relationship is entirely platonic and Lewis seems devoted in a son like way. Nevertheless Dorothy is a little unnerved and tries to find him a career in the movies. He seems to have a natural acting talent, and Dorothy thinks she may have found a way to get him out of her life so she can marry Paul and carry on with a normal existence. However, things start going a little awry when her previous husband apparently commits suicide; then other deaths follow; and Dorothy begins to wonder quite what is going on around her…

This book was not at all what I expected, and I actually find it really hard to write about because I can’t quite work out what it’s intended to be! My first thought was that it was trying to be a kind of black comedy, rather like Waugh’s “The Loved One” – but there doesn’t seem to be any humour! Then I wondered if it was some kind of comment on Hollywood, but in all honesty the Hollywood side of things doesn’t seem to be that prominent, with just a sketchy, clichéd portrayal of the place as superficial and bitchy; so apart from the fact that Lewis is very good at hiding behind a mask, the show business side is really irrelevant. Is it about love, Sagan’s usual subject? Well, yes, I think it probably is. Lewis loves Dorothy obsessively, as she seems to be the first person to show him an unselfish act of kindness, and from this springs his devotion. However, accepting that this is what Sagan is trying to say, I think the book unfortunately doesn’t cohere.

If Sagan is trying to make a serious point, there are too many inconsistencies – it isn’t credible that Lewis would get away with behaving as he does; Dorothy’s behaviour is also not tenable as I find it impossible to believe she would simply accept the killings; and Paul’s acceptance of the third person in his relationship with Dorothy, in the form of Lewis, simply doesn’t work. He’s jealous and critical of Lewis at the start and although Lewis saves him from drowning at one point, that doesn’t seem enough to warrant his total acceptance of Lewis in their lives.

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Lewis is described as almost too handsome, and everyone he meets wants something physical from him – something it’s hinted he’s incapable of giving. This seems to be the crux of the matter and why he responds so strongly to Dorothy’s disinterest – she never sees him as a potential sexual partner and this inspires his devotion. The book is short, but it’s quite possible in a work of this length to develop characters that are strong and real; however Sagan unfortunately resorts to stereotypes (drunken Hollywood director, voracious female star with a ridiculous name) and the book suffers because of this.

Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was! Anyway, thank you Kirsty for a very intriguing read – and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it have thought!

(Post)#GermanLitMonth – A State of Mind

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The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider

Even though we’re comfortably into December, I’m going to claim this one for German Literature Month, as I did *read* it in November – I just ran out of reviewing time! And actually, bearing in mind its length, I’ll also claim it for #novellanov!

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the divide between East and West, as exemplified by the Berlin Wall, has an enduring fascination. So when I stumbled across mention of Peter Schneider’s “The Wall Jumper” I was very keen to track it down, as I do have something of a fascination with the GDR (which I think I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings!)

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Schneider is an author I hadn’t heard of before, and from a cursory look online it seems as if this might be his best known work in English; certainly there are only a few other titles obviously available, and he’s not a writer I’ve seen discussed much. However, on the evidence of “The Wall Jumper” I’d certainly like to read more.

The book is narrated by an unnamed writer who may or not be Schneider himself, and is set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall. It’s populated by characters who live on both sides of the divide: there is Pommerer, the friend in the East the narrator visits and who spins legends of jumpers; Robert, an escapee to the West who tells tales from his bar stool; and there is Lena, the narrator’s past love whose reactions were conditioned by the East which left her temperamentally incapable of a relationship with a Westerner. Binding them together is the narrator, attempting to find the perfect tale of a wall jumper, as he flits back and forth across the Wall. And the tales themselves are fascinating: there are the three youngsters who regularly cross the Wall in its early days to watch Hollywood films; a man who feels compelled to jump back and forth for no good reason; and people with more sinister intent who end up paying the ultimate price. It’s a chilling reminder of just how recent the Cold War was, particularly when you notice that those in the West can visit the East and leave, but those from the East can only escape illegally or if their freedom is bought by the other side.

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But as he searches for the perfect story, it becomes clear that the wall jumper of the title is in fact the narrator himself; shuttling back and forth between East and West, collecting stories and legends of other jumpers and weaving them into his tale, he’s unable to resist his fascination with the city’s great divide.

Every story lacks something the next one has; but then the next story is missing something from the one before. Maybe the story I’m looking for doesn’t exist.

The story is dominated by the Wall, of course and the effect that it has had on those living around it. You would think that simply plonking an arbitrary divide through a city wouldn’t change the people on either side, but in fact it has. Those on the opposing sides of the wall have either chosen where to live according to their belief or mindset, or else have tailored their thought to where they live. Either way, their personality is set by the side of the wall which they inhabit and because of this they constantly misunderstand each other. The Wall is shown to be something that exists in the mind, perhaps more so than the physical

It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the wall we can see. Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us.

And what of the narrator? I felt that he vacillated, unable to decide exactly where his sympathies lay. Like the jumpers themselves, his narrative shifted constantly, from past to present, East to West and in many ways he seemed unsettled in both regions.

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“The Wall Jumper” was an absolutely fascinating read. In this short novel, Schneider crystallises and encapsulates the ideological divide that used to exist between East and West (and probably still does); and it has a powerful message about how different beliefs and mindsets can affect the world today. Essential reading!

#NovellaNov – listing a few favourites!

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During November, Poppy of the lovely PoppyPeacockPens has been running a wonderful initiative to celebrate novellas in all their glory.

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She was kind enough to ask me to take part, so I’ve been happy to offer some of my favourite novellas – although as always, it’s so hard to pick!

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Do pop over and take a look – as well as my favourites, there are some wonderful posts about some wonderful books!  🙂

#NovellaNov and German Literature Month – a double whammy!

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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner

It’s not often that a book ticks two boxes, but this re-read of a book I haven’t returned to for about 30 years manages to! Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse was an author I read extensively in my younger years and I encountered his Knulp back in 2013. I was spurred on to return to “Siddhartha” by picking up a lovely Penguin Modern Classic on a swapping site (and Poppy has an interesting post about those here); so #NovellaNov and German Literature Month were the perfect prompts!

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Hesse had a fascination with Indian and Buddhist philosophies, and in this book he draws on these to tell the story of Siddhartha; set in ancient India, the book tells of the young man’s odyssey through life, searching for spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha is born of a good family but shuns the path set out for him and instead sets off on his own. Joined by his best friend Govinda, he initially joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics who fast and beg for their living, renouncing all personal possessions.

He saw people living in a childish or animal-like way, which he both loved and despised. He saw them toiling, saw them suffer and grow grey about things that to him did not seem worth the price – for money, small pleasures and trivial honours. He saw them scold and hurt each other; he saw them lament over pains at which the Samana laughs, and suffer at deprivations which the Samana does not feel.

The travelling Samanas encounter Guatama, a great Buddha, and Govinda joins his order, but Siddhartha travels on. Crossing a river he experiences a transformation and moves on to take a new role, throwing himself into worldly, city life and spending time with the great courtesan Kamala. Becoming rich, this satisfies him for a while until he realises that this life is hollow. Returning to the river he considers self-destruction; but re-encountering the kind Ferryman who took him across initially, Siddhartha stays with him, embracing the simple spiritual life and listening to what the river has to tell him…

The world was beautiful when looked at in this way – without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.

Siddhartha’s tale of spiritual self-discovery is beautifully written and though it might not be obviously so, very relevant today. The sections where he’s living a life of luxury in the city, making money and becoming a man of stature, resonate with the modern world where gadgets and gizmos are all-consuming, but distract from moral worth and mental and philosophical exercise. Siddhartha tries all the extremes, from extreme poverty and extreme wealth until he finds a middle way, a simplicity that humans need but which is so often missing from their over-complicated existence.

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Both of my recent readings of Hesse have revealed an author who cares about how we humans exist on this planet, and how we should spend our time during our short stay here. “Siddhartha” is an elegant discussion of the best way to live our lives and it’s made me really keen to revisit the rest of Hesse’s work.

#NovellaNov – A South American fable

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The Topless Tower Silvina Ocampo
Translated by James Womack

Poppy at PoppyPeacockPens is running a wonderful initiative this month to celebrate the art of the novella – and I’m happy to be able to join in with this slim volume from the wonderful Argentinian author, Silvina Ocampo. This is the third of her books I’ve read (I reviewed “Thus Were Their Faces” here, and her collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares here) and it’s a story that wouldn’t have actually been out-of-place in the NYRB collection. At 53 pages it perhaps seems more of a short story than a novella, but it was published separately by Hesperus Press in their “Hesperus Worldwide” imprint, so I guess it qualifies!

topless tower

And what a strange little tale it is! “The Topless Tower” is narrated by 9-year-old Leandro; one day, while he is playing with his friends, a strange man appears and tries to sell his mother some pictures, of strange rooms and the Topless Tower of the title. As Leandro has a somewhat sassy discourse with the man, his reality suddenly changes and he finds himself inside the Tower, alone and imprisoned in a place with no windows. Soon, he discovers that if he draws something, it immediately comes to life alongside him in the tower; this can go quite well, but often he cannot control his pencil and ends up with spiders and snakes and all sorts. Despite desperately trying to draw his mother, he manages to produce girl companions. But will he ever escape from the Tower itself?

Will the images we’ve seen throughout our lives remain inside our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film;of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed. If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother whom I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?

For such a short work, there’s actually an awful amount to think about, and that short summary barely scratches the surface. Leandro himself is an intriguing narrator – wise beyond his years, he uses words he doesn’t understand, but uses them correctly and they’re underlined in the narrative. He switches from first to third person, and back again, which adds another disconcerting layer to his story and makes you wonder how reliable a narrator he actually is. The lack of control which he has over the drawings is intriguing and the fact that, as the book progresses, his skill improves suggests perhaps that he’s growing up and developing his talents.

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In fact, much of this book is probably allegorical (or it may be that I just have the habit of reading too much into books!) But Leandro claims to be fighting against the Devil, there is a strong fairy-tale element present in the story and we all know just how allegorical fairy stories are. The fact that one of the girls drawn by Leandro is called Alice is very probably significant, as the world he’s in seems to have as much logic as Carroll’s masterpiece.

“The Topless Tower” was a fascinating read, and I’m still thinking about the meanings behind the symbols some time after finishing it. As I said, it’s a short work to be printed on its own, and would have fitted well into “Thus Were Their Faces”. However, I’m glad I decided to read it just now, and it certainly does prove just how much meaning you can pack into a short novella… 🙂

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