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2013 – A Year of Reading, and plans for 2014

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And actually, this was my first full calendar year of blogging – I can’t quite believe I’ve been doing this for 18 months now! I did wonder when I started if I would have the impetus to keep going, but I *have* enjoyed very much rambling away here, and sharing my thoughts on books and book-related thingies. Roll on 2014!

In the meantime, a few thoughts on the highlights of 2013. It has been on a personal basis a bit up and down, with various family illnesses and crises, so in many ways books have been what they always have for me, something of a coping mechanism. And I have read some wonderful volumes this year, and interacted with some really lovely people – fellow bloggers, readers, publishers – which has made the blogging journey even more special.

I’ve also learned things about myself as a reader, which is odd after all these years! The main thing I’ve discovered is that I’m absolutely rubbish at challenges! In 2012 I caught up late with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s works, and managed to keep pace. However, this year I only committed myself to one Barbara Pym and one volume of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” a month and even that small challenge has proved impossible: I abandoned the Pyms halfway through the year, and am struggling with the last two volumes of Powell this month! I am definitely a wayward reader, influenced by whims and moods and what’s happening around me bookwise, so the only formal challenge I’m setting myself next year is the LibraryThing Great War Reading Event. This weighs in with a very reasonably one book per two months, and even with a choice of books, so I ought to be able to cope with that! Apart from this, I am really going to try to read as many books as I possible can which are already on my shelves – if for no other reason than to try to clear a few out and stop the house falling down under the weight of books!

So – highlights of 2013? In no particular order:

The Russians – I’ve spent time in the pages of a *lot* of Russians this year, having a particular binge on Dostoevsky. I finally read “The Brother Karamazov” which knocked me out – and I’d like to return to more of his books in the new year, as I do have a shelf full…. I also at last experienced the wonder that is “Anna Karenina”, a long and absorbing read which was just great to sink into. And then there’s Bulgakov – 2014 needs to see a revisit to “The Master and Margarita”!

Beverley Nichols – a recent discovery, and such a wonderful writer. His wit, his passion, his wearing of his emotions on his sleeve, his wonderful writing – in 2013 he became one of my favourites and I have the joy of several volumes waiting on my shelves for next year.

The Hopkins Manuscript – a lovely Persephone volume which I read fairly recently and which was unexpectedly compulsive. My unforeseen hit of the year!

Small presses and independent publishers – some of the best books I’ve come across are from publishers like Hesperus, Persephone and Alma Classics; and I’ve discovered new presses like Michael Walmer and Valancourt. Long live the independents!

Italo Calvino – I continued my reading of one of my favourite writers with a new collection of his essays – and I’m hoping that the volume of his letters will find its way to me soon…

Lost books – there’s nothing I like more than rediscovering an obscure volume and there were two stand-outs for me this year – Andrew Garve’s “Murder in Moscow” and the very wonderful Fred Basnett’s “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”. I came across the Basnett book by chance in a charity shop and it ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year!

Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence – I set myself the challenge at the start of the year to read the 12 books in this series, one a month. I haven’t quite kept to the schedule (though I do hope to finish by the end of December), and I’ve struggled at times – but this has been a really rewarding reading experience, and I’m so glad to have spent time with Nick Jenkins and the fantastic (in all senses of the word) set of characters that Powell peopled his books with!

The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group – one of the most important things of my reading year has been my involvement in this group, surely the nicest and friendliest place on the ‘Net! The Virago group are responsible for introducing me to so many blogs, bloggers, books and authors; we share secret santa, companionship, views on books, recommendations and support each other in the highs and lows of life. I do feel blessed to have been part of the group this year and look forward to another year of reading Viragos (and other books!) alongside them.

So – Plans for 2014?

As I said above, I’ve realised I function best as a reader if I don’t restrict or tie myself down. So there are a small number of books I plan for the Great War Reading Event and here they are:

Not too many when spread out over 12 months and with a commitment to only one every 2 months even I should be able to manage to keep up!

I’ve also decided that in 2014 I’d like to read the Raj Quartet and so I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of picking up the first two volumes in a couple of local charity shops – not bad for £1.75 and £1 each! But I won’t give myself deadlines, I’ve decided – I shall just read them when the mood takes me.

There are also a couple of review books I need to get on to:

Apart from this, I need to take some serious action about Mount TBR. I actually have so many books that I haven’t read that I don’t even have a separate TBR shelf (or two) – if I tried this the books would end up in chaos, so everything is shelved roughly by category/author. The danger in this is not only that I can’t find things, but also that I forget what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, and also forget what I had intended to read next. Therefore, I’d like 2014 to see a process of reading what I already own, then deciding if I want to keep it or not, and perhaps gradually slimming down the shelves a little. If I had an infinite amount of space I wouldn’t worry about it – but I haven’t, so I need to reduce the collection a bit.

I think this is a workable plan and gives me a *lot* of freedom in my reading – after all, whatever whim takes me, I’ll probably have *something* to fit it in my library! So that’s my plan – what’s yours?

Persephone Pleasures: The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

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It’s been a little while since I indulged in one of the Persephone Books volumes on Mount TBR, but I recently felt drawn to this one, and picked it up after finishing “Merry Hall” because I really didn’t quite know what to read yet – and I wanted to try to stop myself sending off for every Beverley Nichols book I could find!

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“The Hopkins Manuscript” is one of the few books published by Persephone which is written by a man, and Wikipedia says: Robert Cedric Sherriff (6 June 1896 – 13 November 1975) was an English writer best known for his play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He wrote several plays, novels, and screenplays, and was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards.

His works seem quite varied (his other Persephone, “The Fortnight in September”, sounds much gentler than THM!) and the Persephone site describes the book thus: The author of Journey’s End, the iconic play about WWI, was also a novelist and in 1939 he imagined what might happen if the moon crashed into the earth: the events leading up to the cataclysm are seen through the eyes of a retired schoolmaster who lives in a small Hampshire village.

So, sounds intriguing, no? In fact, I think this book will end up being one of my reads of the year because I should state up front that I absolutely loved it! The story opens with a Foreword by the Imperial Research Press of Addis Ababa, describing what follows as the only surviving document by an ordinary man about what turns out to be the fall of Western civilization. Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged former schoolmaster, who lives in the little village of Beadle in Hampshire. He is a somewhat reclusive, slightly private man, a bit pernickity and obsessed with raising and showing chickens at a variety of local shows – his prize hen being called Broodie! Hopkins has a side interest in amateur astronomy and becomes an associate member of the British Lunar Society. He enjoys his regular trips up to London to attend meetings, and it is this interest that lets him become privy to a devastating secret – it has been discovered that the moon is gradually travelling closer to the Earth and in the following May it will collide with our planet.

The news is initially kept secret to allow the governments of the world to make plans – under the guise of anticipating a future war, dugouts are built and local committees set up to make preparations. In the meantime, poor Hopkins tries to carry on as normal, all the time carrying his secret knowledge with him. As the moon becomes so large in the sky that the truth can no longer be hidden, the Beadle villagers are marshalled by Sapper Evans, a Welsh soldier assigned to co-ordinate the survival plans. Meanwhile, Hopkins has befriended Colonel Parker who lives nearby, and his nephew and niece Robin and Pat; the young people bring a breath of new life to the repressed schoolteacher and the characters all try to clutch at some happiness before the cataclysm. As the fateful day approaches, the characters (and the reader!) are on tenterhooks – what will happen?

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Of course, I’m being a little disingenuous here – because the book opens with Edgar in Notting Hill, living in wretched circumstances and trying to survive long enough to tell his tale, it is obvious that the Earth won’t be destroyed – some humans will survive, and our interest is in how, who and also what will happen in the post-cataclysm world.

Well, yes – humans do survive, and those remaining start to rebuild life in England. The world after the moon’s arrival is perhaps a little unexpected, and people pull together and make plans and start to regain a little normality. Alas, this does not last for a long time – we know it will not from the foreword – and the peril comes from within and without…

“The approaching moon had been so remotely beyond human control that it drew humanity together in a bond of ennobling courage. But what thrill was there in the menace that stalked us now? – the menace of human greed and suspicion? The thin, brittle crust of prosperity that we had built over the ruins of the cataclysm would never stand the weight of human strife. Under the strain of war it must collapse in unspeakable chaos and misery. I feared my fellow creatures far more than I ever feared the moon.”

This really is a remarkable book on a number of levels – the quality of its writing, clarity of its vision and the fact it isn’t better known – which is quite shocking and plaudits must go to Persephone for bringing it back into print. It would be too easy and simplistic to label THM as just a piece of Wellsian sci-fi, because it’s not – it’s much more than that; a deep, thought-provoking work about human beings and how they will behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s also a gripping story, full of characters you come to know, love and care about. The settings and events are vivid and memorable, and I found myself unable to put the book down. I hadn’t actually noticed I was reading a chunkster – the book is 400 pages long! – but the length and pace is necessary for the gradual unfolding of the story. We are given time to watch the relationships develop, the progress of the moon to become public knowledge, the different characters reacting in their own way. The book would not have the same impact if it was rushed – as it is, I became completely absorbed, living the last poignant days of earth alongside the characters.

And absorbed is the right word – I found myself reading long into the night to find out what happened next. Sherriff is remarkably perceptive in his understanding and portrayal of people – from Robin and Pat, young people with their lives still ahead of them, bravely confronting the tragedies they meet; the drunken landlord of the local pub going into decline when the news breaks; the simpler villagers who either don’t understand or don’t believe; and the unpleasant survivors who start to come to the fore once regeneration has begun. Edgar Hopkins himself is a wonderfully engaging character. All too human, with his frailties and vanities, his preoccupation with his chicken breeding and local status, we can identify with him completely and empathise with his horror at the approaching catastrophe. He epitomizes the human spirit, finding the resolve to survive despite not being a natural hero; and we cheer him on in his small triumphs and share in his joys at finding moments of peace and companionship, even though we might laugh at his foibles.

“I thought of this wonderful year that was drawing to its close: this year of striding progress – the peace and gathering prosperity of Europe. All the bitterness and hostility, all the suspicions and racial hatreds that had threatened and darkened the closing years of the old world had gone forever. The nations of Europe had arisen from the ruins of the cataclysm, cleansed of greed, drawn into harmony by a common disaster; determined to build a new world in friendship and mutual respect. The cataclysm had almost destroyed us, but from the ashes had arisen the United States of Europe.”

Sci fi falls into a number of categories and this is the type I like – what might be more accurately titled visionary fiction – fantastic events happening in a familiar, believable landscape; Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard’s fiction often falls into this genre. What is excellent about this kind of writing is the freedom it gives the author to make a point. The word “allegory” becomes inevitable because of the context of THM. Written in the late 1930s and published in 1939, it is hard not to see the impending cataclysm of the moon as representing the storm clouds of war which were gathering over Britain. And the resourcefulness of the Beadle villagers and their indomitable survival and attempts at recovery eerily foreshadows the spirit of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction. The book focuses at points on the state of the British Empire and its redundancy is clear – Hopkins rejoices in the new egalitarian state that develops among humans, where class divides disappear and all mix happily together, working alongside one another for the common good. The afterword of the book discusses whether what Sherriff wrote would be possible, but to be honest I thought that whether the science is accurate or not is in some ways an irrelevancy; it is the human side of things the book is about. However, Hopkins/Sherriff is quite vocal about humanity’s greed and the lack of care we take of our planet in a way that anticipates ecological concerns.

This is a deep, rich, rewarding and eminently readable book which I can’t recommended enough – I have a serious book hangover now!

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