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…but I haven’t forgotten this blog! Life kind of got on top of me; I’ve been reading a lot and working a lot and doing a lot in general so I let the blogging slide.  But I find as I’ve been reading I’ve been coming up with more topics that I want to blog about, so hopefully over the next few weeks you’ll hear more from me.

So what have I been reading recently? Well, I’ve just updated my ‘Books read in 2011’ page so you can see exactly what I’ve been reading. But I think there are some in the list that deserve a special mention.

Moab Is My Washpot & The Fry Chronicles, both by Stephen Fry: The first 2 books in Fry’s biography are nothing short of fantastic. He’s honest, self-depreciating, critical, humorous, and passionate and throughout it all his language and vocabulary keep you grabbing for the dictionary (in a good way).  His love of words resonates across the pages and you can’t help but smile at the loquacious style and wealth of word play.  I loved these books and heartily recommend them.

Travelling with Che Guevara by Alberto Grenada:  I think I’m safe in making the assumption that everyone has heard of Che Guevara.  Many will have heard of or watched the film based on Guevara’s book, The Motorcycle Diaries.  I’d heard of Guevara and the film, I knew a little about his politics but my knowledge was vague.  This book is the diary of Guevara’s travelling companion when they took off on an old motorcycle to cross South America and explore their own continent and how the locals live, work and survive under a variety of different regimes.  They meet a variety of characters along the way and Grenada’s descriptions carry you along with them.  You can smell and envision their surroundings; you can hear their conversations with locals.  You can sense their frustration at the lack of democracy and the influence of American capitalism on the impoverished locals and indigenous peoples.  It’s a great book and an excellent insight into the early formation of Guevara’s politics.  It’s so good, I went straight out and bought Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

A friend was recently in Frankfurt and as she walked along the footpath she came across a bookshelf!  It wasn’t up against a wall, it was just sitting in the middle of the path.  More importantly, it had books on its shelves!  She very kindly took a photo for me to share:

How cool is that!  I love this idea, there should be more random bookshelves in the world.  I’ve picked up books on buses, in pubs, in hotels but never from a bookshelf in the street.  I say, long live random locations for finding books.

Is it the choice of subject matter?  The genre?  The number of pages?  The use of big words?  Is a Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie book considered to be of a higher literary quality than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer?  If so, why?

I heard an interview on the radio a few months ago with Jeffrey Archer and he described himself as a storyteller.  There’s an interview with Archer on The Browser website where he talks about 5 famous books.  It’s really interesting because in this article, as with the radio interview, he makes the point that Dickens isn’t considered a great writer, but a great storyteller, the same goes for Dumas.  It’s taken the French 200 years to recognise how good a novelist Dumas was.

So the question is this, in 100 years what books written from this current period will we consider classics?   What will they be reading in school?  Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice or Harry Potter?  Will students be studying Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Sebastian Faulks?  What makes these authors more worth studying than Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman or John Grisham?  The latter 3 authors have all won literary awards so aren’t they as good as the others?

I wrote an earlier post asking if we’re aver embarrassed by what we read and I concluded that we shouldn’t ever be embarrassed, as everyone likes something different.  But I do notice that if people ask me what I’ve been reading recently I sometimes will say ‘just some crime novels’ in a dismissive way.  But if I’ve been reading something that’s considered literature I’ll make a point of naming the author.  Is that really pretentious?  I don’t do it all the time – now I sound defensive!

It’s an interesting thought as I personally much prefer a good story to an award winning literary novel.  The Booker Prize long-list was released on 26 July and, not surprisingly, when I looked at the list I had read none of the books.  In fact, I haven’t read any from last year’s list either!  But I have read a huge number of works that are classified as literary classics.  I’ve read every Charles Dickens novel and they are considered classic works of literature – but when they were first published they were the Victorian equivalent of Eastenders!

So what’s the key difference between a literary effort and popular fiction?  Personally, I don’t know how to describe the difference other than in many cases a good story is easier to read.  People criticise Harry Potter and dismiss adults reading these books, but I would much rather see anyone of any age reading Harry Potter or Dan Brown than reading nothing at all.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read every Dickens, I’m a huge fan and I’ll highly recommend Dickens to anyone. But why should you read Dickens rather than James Patterson?  There’s no reason.  They’re both great story tellers, though one does take a few hours longer to read than the other!

Maybe one difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature is what we’re told we should read, like it’s good for us!  Who says so, some critic in the Guardian?  Why should they advise us on what we should read?  I think I’m pretty capable of deciding what I will and won’t read.  I enjoy reading reviews, they provide me with ideas of books I might be interested in reading.  But I certainly don’t choose the books I read based solely on reviews or award lists.  At the end of the day surely the sign of a good book is how enjoyable it is.  That’s the key point of reading, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t read over 100 books a year if I didn’t enjoy reading and I wouldn’t enjoy reading if there weren’t so many darn good stories out there!  So I say, stuff the critics and the awards lists stick with what’s enjoyable.  100 years from now, that’s what we’ll still be reading!

Sometimes….

..the experience surpasses the expectation!  Gotta love that!

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me”

C.S. Lewis

I saw this blog entry from Stuck in a Book and I thought I’d provide my own list.  The responses to Simon’s blog were really interesting.

1.) The book I’m currently reading:

War by Sebastian Junger: An incredible book based on the year Sebastian Junger spent with the American Army’s 2nd battalion in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan.  So far I’ve read about 50% and it’s a fascinating insight into modern warfare and the impact it has on soldiers and their relationships with each other.  It’s pretty brutal and blunt at times but it’s also gripping.  The fact that the war in Afghanistan is on the news almost everyday only serves to emphasise the relevance of this book.  Highly recommended.

2.) The last book I finished:

Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut: A really interesting read.  It was quick and easy and actually really enjoyable.  When I read the blurb, “Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.” I didn’t really know what to expect!  So I was pleasantly surprised and on a more serious note, it’s a novel that highlights the impact of war in its own way.

3.) The next book I want to read:

Blackout by Connie Willis: Three young historians travel from 2060 to early 1940s Britain for firsthand research. I’ve got a copy of the hardback version from the library and I’ev read the first few pages, it seems really easy to read and I’m intrigues as to how much period detail there will be and how she integrates the future.  I’m looking forward to settling in with this one.

4.) The last book I bought:

Tell No One by Harlan Coben: It was on offer on Amazon and even though I’ve already read it I couldn’t resist!  It’s a good book to have to hand in case I need something I can leave behind on holiday.  It’s a typical Coben mystery/thriller; enjoyable and easy.

5.) The last book I was given:  I was actually given a present of 3 books recently:


Reality Hunger by David Shields: Apparently this book “questions every assumption we ever made about art, the novel, journalism, poetry, film, TV, rap, stand-up, graffiti, sampling, plagiarism, writing, and reading.”  I’ve no idea if this is true, but I look forward to finding out!


The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell: This book poses question after question – it looksa bit odd but I reckon it’ll get me thinking!

and finally, Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears: Historical fiction, which I like and it’s a mystery, which I also like.  That’s all I know about this one so far, but I’m looking forward to it.

If you were to ask me to name my favourite author my answer would probably differ depending on my mood, but I can guarantee that Dickens would consistently be in my top 5.  I’ve read and own practically everything he wrote but I don’t own a copy of Great Expectations and I’m not sure why.

It’s certainly not my favourite Dickens novel but then again Mansfield Park is my least favourite Jane Austen novel and I still own a copy.  I’ve not read Mansfield Park since I had to dissect it at school but I figure that someday I’ll be ready to face it again (it’s only been 15 years or so!) and I want a copy for when that day comes!  I’ve never read Les Miserables, but likewise I own a copy for the day when I’m ready to read it.  So why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?

I have read it and it was easy enough to read, though it wasn’t as enjoyable as David Copperfield or the Pickwick Papers.  It’s darker than either of those two books but it regularly appears in ‘must read’ lists and lists of favourite books.

I’ve often wondered if people name Great Expectations as their favourite Dickens novel because they think they should.  They think that there’s more depth to it than Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.  I also wonder if, for many people, it’s the only Dickens they’ve ever read, and that was probably at school.  People think they know Oliver Twist because they’ve seen the film but I doubt that most of those viewers have actually read the book, which has much more depth and twists and turns than the film or the musical.  The BBC adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit received fantastic reviews and were watched by millions but how many of those viewers have read either book?

Is current awareness of Dickens due to word of mouth, school and TV adaptations rather than actual readership?  I wonder how many people have a copy of Great Expectations but don’t own any other Dickens novel?

Many people have told me that they find Dickens difficult to get in to, that the novels are too descriptive.  Perhaps that’s true to some extent.  But I think that with Dickens perseverance pays off.  For me Dickens is a master of evoking a time and place.  Think of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, I know this might not seem like an obvious comparison but bear with me.  Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels are huge (in size and readership)!  They’re full of detailed descriptions of locations, weapons and military paraphernalia and all that description brings a reality to the novels.  You can believe what he’s writing because he infuses his fiction with fact.  And Dickens was the same.

Dickens descriptions focus on society and environment; the time and place.  He evokes a society divided by class and his novels portray the true nature of poverty faced by many on a daily basis.  He wrote about a time and society that he was familiar with and understood, and it’s his passion with regard to highlighting the social conditions of the poor that often leads to the descriptive nature of his works.  He also uses comedy, satire and gross caricatures to get his point across and I believe this is what makes his work so enjoyable.  He may be trying to portray depravity and the harsh conditions of the lower classes but this darkness is infused with a lightness that keeps the reader engaged.  He’s not preaching about social conditions, he’s creating awareness through entertainment.

Dickens is a social commentator, just as many other authors before and since.  Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a great example of a satirical look at society.  George Orwell took a more realistic look in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) but also reverted to caricature in Animal Farm (1945).  Alan Sillitoe fictionalised working class life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) but it’s very much based on the reality of life and social conditions during that time.  And just as Dickens, Swift and Orwell inserted lighter moments in their works, so did Sillitoe.

I think many people probably have the wrong idea about Dickens, they think they know what the books are about.  These novels have been around for years, and everyone has heard of Dickens and can name at least one novel.  But how many people would go into a library or bookshop and pick up a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop?  How many people think they know what happens in that novel?  How many people think they know what happens in Hard Times?  I think Dickens is misunderstood, not because people don’t understand what he writes but because people don’t actually read the novels but instead rely on what they think they know about the novels.

Obviously I’m making a lot of assumptions but it’s just my opinion.  And in my opinion a Dickens novel is a great read and I would encourage anyone to give one of his novels a go.  Stick with it and hopefully you’ll get the same enjoyment I have.

So now that I’ve raved about Dickens why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?  I am a huge fan, as you may have guessed, and I’ll happily sit and read Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby despite having read them numerous times already.  But if someone gave me a copy of Great Expectations I’d probably put it to one side and read something else.  So maybe it’s time to take my own advice and give it another go.  I guess that means I’d better go get a copy.

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