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Posts Tagged ‘escapism’

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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I was off work last week with an ear infection and as I lay on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and unable to hear the TV, I read a few books. And as I automatically reached for a PG Wodehouse I started thinking about what I read when I’m ill! There are certain books on my shelves that I would classify as ‘illness favourites’. These include; Harry Potter, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. They’re all excellent books for any time but I particularly like them when I’m ill as they’re so easy to read and don’t take a lot of thinking about. It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep mid-sentence or can only read a page at a time, you don’t need to keep track of intricate details or decipher long-winded descriptive paragraphs or try and work out the sub-text, it’s all there on the page.

I love books that make you think and question things but when you’re ill all you want to do is curl up with something comforting, the literary equivalent of hot chocolate! That’s what Agatha Christie etc are to me – my comfort read. They’re familiar old friends that I can dip into without thinking, I don’t have to concentrate too much, I can just relax and enjoy them.

I’ve been reading Ulysses over the past month or so and I’m getting through it, I’ve got less than 150 pages to go, but when I realised I was ill I felt quite relieved that I could ignore Ulysses for a while and pick up something a lot less taxing. The last thing I want to read when I’m ill is something heavy, depressing or intellectually challenging!

So I say thank goodness for all those writers who’ve created proper comfort reads! Illness would be horrible without them.

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It’s been a while since I wrote a blog so I thought it was about time, especially as I’ve just updated my ‘Books read in 2010’ page and I realised just quite how many books I’ve read over the last month!  I know that quite a few of them only took a few hours but it’s still quite a long list.

So, what have I been reading and what can we surmise from this list.  Well, there’s been quite a lot of escapism; I was a little unwell so I took solace in quite a few detective/thriller novels.  As I’ve said in a previous post these books are one of my favourite ways of clearing my head and escaping from everyday realities and stresses.  My favourite?  I’d say probably Linda Fairstein’s Hell Gate.  It featured the familiar protagonists and made excellent use, as usual, of the New York setting.  One of the features of this series that I particularly love is learning more about New York and its history, it’s evident that Fairstein is extremely knowledgeable and a fan of this great city.  This really brings an atmosphere and sense of location to the novels and captures the reader, bringing them into the story.  I won’t go into any further detail about the book, other than to say fans of this series won’t be disappointed.

I must say that before I started reading I assumed that Tess Gerritsen’s The Killing Place would be my favourite and it was pretty good but I just didn’t think it matched some of her earlier work.  Although it featured many of the same characters it was based in a new setting and felt a little disjointed.  I didn’t get carried along with the story or caught up in the struggle for survival and rescue that it seemed I was supposed to!  I was particularly disappointed by a lack of emotion in the writing.  Without wanting to give anything away, there were some deaths that seemed almost to be mentioned in passing and had little impact on any of the characters and were barely referred to again.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next in this series is a huge improvement.  Though it does remind me of how Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series went downhill as she focused on the characters and their stories as opposed to the genre itself.  I just want to shake these authors and say, the reason we love these books is because of what the characters do and how they react to grisly murders and risky situations, I don’t really care as much about their emotional entanglements, certainly not enough for that to be the primary focus of the book!

Anyway, onto more enjoyable reads.  I’ve previously read Ben MacIntyre’s Agent Zigzag and I thought it was excellent; brilliantly researched with evocative and emotional language that really captured a sense of time and place.  So not long ago I purchased Operation Mincemeat but then I put it on my TBR pile and it’s been sitting there ever since!  Then I happened across a second hand copy of A Foreign Field and I started reading it.  This is another of MacIntyre’s books focusing on a little known piece of war history.  The story starts with MacIntyre working for The Times in Paris and being invited to the unveiling of a memorial to British soldiers killed during the First World War.  There he meets the daughter of one of these soldiers, born following a war-time romance in this remote little village situated near the front line.  MacIntyre takes us on a journey of discovery as he tells us how soldiers separated from their regiments took refuge amongst the villagers and how in turn the villagers coped with the stress of hiding fugitives, the lack of food and the strict regime imposed by the Germans.  In some ways this is a detective novel, with MacIntyre acting as the detective.  He uses a number of historical sources to build up his story as well as speaking with the remaining villagers who remember that time and the relatives of those who have since passed away.  One thing is clear; everyone believed that someone betrayed the soldiers to the Germans.  MacIntyre feels a compulsion to find the culprit, though the villagers seem keen to let the past lie.  Throughout the book there is a clear sense of how the villagers and soldiers lived and the difficulties they face and it is an excellent read.  One of the great things is that MacIntyre’s writing doesn’t diminish as he brings the story up to date and reaches his conclusion as to who the guilty party may be.  The reader is captured from the beginning and can’t resist staying for the rest of the ride.  I’d highly recommend this as an example of how a historical novel about a true story can be just as gripping and intriguing as any fictional detective story or thriller.

Anyway I think that’s enough for one post.  Though I do think it’s worth pointing out that Chasing Shakespeare by Sarah Smith was really not that great a read, more infuriating than anything.  Especially when she got such basic facts such as the location of a tube station wrong!  But on the other hand George Orwell’s collection of essays, Books v Cigarettes, was a fantastic commentary and insight on a specific time and society and well worth the read.

Generally I would say that the books I’ve read over the past month are pretty typical of my reading habits, a good mix of escapism, fantasy and real life adventure to keep me interested, amused and intrigued.

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I recently read a piece on http://shelflove.wordpress.com called Sunday Salon: Why We Dislike What We Dislike, the piece focused on why we dislike certain books and why we don’t even attempt to read others.  Are they just bad or are we biased or trying to read them at the wrong time?

This set me thinking about how the choices I make when it comes to the books I read.  Why do I pick up the books I do?

I think the first reason has to be favourite authors.  For example I’ve read every Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child and I’ll certainly be reading the next one.  The same goes for JD Robb’s ‘In death’ series, John Sandford’s ‘Lucas Davenport’ and Linda Fairstein’s ‘Alex Cooper’.  I pick these books up as they’ve all ready proven their entertainment value to me and I trust they will deliver again.  But why did I start to read these books in the first place?  I think this brings me to the second, and probably primary, reason for choosing books…

Favourite genres.  I am a fan of thrillers and crime/detective fiction so I’ll often browse that section of my local library and take a chance on authors I’ve not read before.  I also use sites like fantasticfiction.co.uk where you can look up authors and find links to other similar authors.  But I’ve noticed that I do discriminate within this genre.  For example I prefer not to read books set in the UK.  I think this is because I live in the UK and I don’t want to be able to identify the location of a murder, it can add a sense of reality that I’m not looking for, I read this genre for escapism, not realism.

I also like classic literature such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few.  So generally I’ll be more likely to pick up a piece of classic literature rather than a work of modern fiction.  Perhaps because the classic is still around it’s proven that it can last the test of time and is therefore more likely to be worth reading.

So generally I think there’s a lot of prejudice and bias that goes in to choosing whether or not to read a book.  I’ve often told people a book didn’t sound ‘like the sort of thing I’d like’ after only the briefest of descriptions.  But I recognise that I do this and a few years ago I decided to try and broaden my literary horizons and diminish my preconceived notions.

It all started with the BBC Big Read, which I’ve previously mentioned in an earlier post.  When I first looked at the list of 100 books I immediately discounted some as books I wouldn’t want to read.  Why?  Simply because they didn’t fall into the categories of favourite authors or genres.  So I decided to finish the entire list whether I liked the book or not.

This has broadened my reading hugely, I always thought I was pretty well read but now I realise how I had limited the scope of books I read by dismissing so many genres/authors because of preconceptions.  I probably would never have read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series if there hadn’t been some of these books on the list, and now I’m huge fan.  It turns out I love a bit of science fiction!

I’ve also discovered a love of historical fiction too.  Then there are the authors like Salman Rushdie who I wouldn’t have read if he hadn’t been on the list but I probably won’t read again!  As well as broadening my choices I also confirmed a few dislikes too.  But now I can say I don’t like these books and I can back my decision up because I did give them a go, I’m basing my decision on fact not ignorant prejudice.

And then there are those stand alone books that are simply just a good read, it might be due to a fantastic story, engaging characters or a setting/situation that the reader can relate to but generally none of these are good enough to make a book stand out on their own.  I believe the one constant across all good books has to be good writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s simplistic, descriptive or emotive but whatever style it has to suit the characters and story and engage the reader.  No matter what the genre, good writing should stand out.

I think that overall I’m much more willing to give any book a go and not just dismiss books willy-nilly.  As well as reading the BBC Big Read list I also asked friends to nominate a book each that I should read and that was a great way to find new books and learn what my friends liked.  I’d encourage others to get outside their comfort zone occasionally and try something new, you never know where it might lead.

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I’ve read a number of books recently that I categorise as the literary equivalent of TV’s CSI or Numbers. These TV programmes are easy to watch, the characters are familiar and the good guys win. To sit and watch these programmes is pure escapism with a bit of morality, emotion, drama, tension and humour mixed in. So what are the books I’ve been reading that fit this category?

They are Vince Flynn’s Term Limits, Robert Crais’ The First Rule, Harlan Coben’s Promise Me, JD Robb’s Fantasy in Death, and James Patterson’s Worst Case.

I’ve enjoyed them all and as I’ve read most of the author’s previous work it was like visiting with old friends; comfortable and familiar.

But that’s not to say the books don’t have literary merit. Despite my familiarity with these characters I still want to be drawn in to the story and engage with the characters. Just as you can easily switch channels if you’re not enjoying a programme, you need a reason to stay with a book. What I love about this type of book however is that you kind of know what you’re getting. You don’t need entirely realistic characters; you can leave realism behind at the first page and just go along for the ride. You want the characters to be larger than life, able to withstand beatings or the derision of others, you also want them to have fantastic insight into the criminal mind and although they may tread a fine line in terms of the law, they’re still solidly in the good guy’s camp.

For example, I also recently read Lee Child’s 61 Hours. Brilliant! I’m a big fan of the Jack Reacher series and this was one of the best. Quite often, with a book based on a character you’re familiar with, you might be tempted to skim over some of the descriptive elements of the book or feel like you know what’s going to happen.  But Lee Child created a story that captivated me and kept me involved until the final pages.  And the best part, I didn’t expect the ending.  It was excellent, there were a few surprises which kept me on the edge of my seat and left me wanting more.

This is definitely a book I would recommend and I really can’t wait until September for the next instalment! I think I’m going to have to go back and re-read some of the early Jack Reacher books.

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