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Posts Tagged ‘random thoughts’

…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.

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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!

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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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“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”, these are the questions that mysteriously appear in the mailbox of 14 year old Sophie Amundsen.  This is the beginning of Sophie’s correspondence course in philosophy.  It may not seem like a natural fit for a book; a fourteen year old schoolgirl living in Norway and learning philosophy but it works.

As mentioned, the story is set in Norway and this book was translated from Norwegian.  The story starts with Sophie walking home from school and finding these mysterious, anonymous notes.  As with most novels we see everything from the perspective of the protagonist, Sophie.  So we are as much in the dark as she is as to where the notes came from or why they are in her mailbox.  We are then taken on an intriguing journey as her mysterious correspondent keeps delivering more notes and papers to expand her knowledge.  At this point we start to learn about the beginnings of philosophy ourselves as we are reading everything Sophie reads.  This is an interesting way to position what is, in many ways, a text book.  It’s a history and explanation of philosophy and philosophers surrounded by a fictional teenage narrator dealing with normal teenage life.

I studied philosophy at University and I have a basic grounding in some of the major players in this field but I wouldn’t say I could explain exactly who believed what and who came up with specific ideas or ways of looking at the world we live in.  But since reading this book I feel much more confident that I really do understand the philosophy movement and how it has spread and developed over the centuries.

Gaarder has created a story that allows us to connect with a character and their life and interspersed it with fact.  I won’t give anything away but I will say that Sophie’s story develops into part of the philosophical discussion and by the end of the book my head was full of questions.  I really enjoyed this work, perhaps it helped that I enjoy philosophy but I do believe that anyone with even the vaguest interest in philosophy would get a lot from this.  It’s fiction but it’s not, it’s a text book but it isn’t, it’s just a really well written work that provides a great overview of the history of the philosophy movement and the major players and asks questions of the reader that we don’t always take the time to ask ourselves, never mind try to answer!

“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”; I sometimes think it would be nice to have an easy answer but then again, isn’t that why we read;  to explore new worlds and ideas, and try to put ourselves in others shoes?  It’s good to ask questions we can’t answer; the world would be a bit boring if we knew everything.

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I’ve been getting the RSS feed for the blog 1000 Awesome things for over a year now and it’s so much fun to read the headline and think, yeah that’s awesome!  All those everyday experiences that you take for granted but are actually really awesome, such as finding good reading material in someone else’s bathroom, the clean baby smell, finding out what song is in the commercial, the smell of a library, or getting the lid off a jar no one else could open!  I don’t agree with all the awesome posts but it’s nice to be reminded that we’re surrounded by awesome things everyday and we should celebrate the everyday achievements and pleasures just as much as the exceptional.

As I mentioned I’ve been reading this blog for over a year, but I’ve never commented on it.  But todays post really stood out for me; All the food that comes out of a pig is awesome!!  I love pigs; they’re intelligent, cute and extremely tasty.  Think I might need to have a bacon butty soon.

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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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One of the blogs I enjoy reading is called Bookish NYC and every week she writes a post called ‘seen on the subway’, where she comments on a few people she’s spotted, what they look like, what they’re wearing and what they’re reading.  It’s interesting to see how often a person’s age or appearance really is not indicative of what they’re likely to read.

I did think about writing a similar post describing people I’ve spotted on the London underground, but that idea fell apart rather quickly when I realised that I spend too much time with my nose in a book to pay attention to the people around me!  However, the other day I spotted a woman, mid-thirties, smart clothes, subtle make-up, she looked like she was on her way to work and she was sitting reading a book.  But, and here’s the thing, I couldn’t tell what she was reading because she was holding a letter from an electricity company around the cover of the book!

The letter was out of the envelope, unfolded and held sideways to cover the front and back of the book, it was definitely positioned purposely to hide the book cover!  How odd is that?  I’ve read quite a bit of trash in my time, but I’ve never felt the need to hide it.  Of course this started me wondering about what she was reading.  Could it be porn, erotica, or a children’s book?  Perhaps it was a terrorist manual on bomb making!

From what I could see it looked like a small hardback book with text, not pictures.  What would be so embarrassing that you would want to hide it?  And if you felt the need to hide what you were reading why would you bring it on the underground anyway?

The whole thing seems a bit strange to me.  I think that if you’ve chosen to read a book, no matter what genre, you should be free to read it without embarrassment; it’s your choice, no one else has to read it and certainly no one else should care what you’re reading.  So I really can’t get my head round why this woman would hide her book.  It’s got me stumped – any thoughts?

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